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Conversations: Andy Hobsbawm, EVRYTHNG

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In the third in a small collection of interviews with innovative entrepreneurs and thought leaders to be published throughout the year, here WhichPLM discusses the Internet of Things (particularly as it relates to our industry), social media, and machine learning with Co-founder & CMO of EVRYTHNG, Andy Hobsbawm. EVRYTHNG is an IoT Smart Product Platform, designed to unlock value from smart products and packaging, and digitally transform businesses using the Internet of Things.

Name: Andy Hobsbawm

Occupation: Co-founder & CMO, EVRYTHNG

Likes: Digital things, green things, guitar things, Internet of Things

Dislikes: Inaction on climate change, rise of alt-right, over-done brussels sprouts

Words to live by: If you don’t vote, don’t complain

WhichPLM: Andy, as the bridge between our ‘All about the consumer’ series and our ‘Revolutionary Technology’ series we’d like to pick your brain on various areas, and to talk to you about EVRYTHNG, which you market as an ‘IoT Smart Products Platform’. We’ll cover a lot of ground today, but I suppose to begin we should get your views on, and I guess your definition of, the Internet of Things.

Andy Hobsbawm: Connecting physical things to the web is the shortest answer. Most of our personal and professional lives would be unimaginable today without the web (by that I mean the cluster of all related technologies – including smartphones and so on).

But up until now physical things, environments and objects haven’t been part of the network; we’ve had information links, databases and transactional mechanisms like e-commerce, and people connected via social networks, but the actual ‘things’ themselves haven’t been online. What the Internet of Things does is digitize and connect these physical things to this flow of real-time digital information, services, transactions and experiences.

The more technical definition would be that the IoT is fundamentally about data. You are now unlocking a flow of data from something that previously had all of its associated data ‘locked in’ – it couldn’t be accessed. Using sensors, chips or smart packaging, in combination with smartphones and smart software in the cloud, allows you to unlock those data flows from physical assets in a business, and harness it to write valuable applications and analytics – for consumers, for supply chain partners, for retailers.

The first age of the web was about managing the identity of information, about managing the trustability and identity, and communication and transactions between information objects (for example Verisign server certificates). The next stage was about managing the identity of people – social networks and cloud CRMs created individuals as a unique, web data record that then facilitated new communications and services. And this third age is going to be about doing that with objects – the digital identity and data management of things.

WhichPLM: Not only is that a great definition in isolation, but it also re-affirms our views. We’ve found that one of the more fundamental confusions over the Internet of Things is that people assume that there is some grand, central strategy – and we know to some extent there is in the sense that there are governing bodies directing to IPv6 etc. – and, broadly speaking, there is no central hand on the tiller.

The IoT is not moving towards a conscious goal where you just need to connect your stuff and be part of that goal. It’s, as you said, the ability to invent systems and add connectivity to things, which is coming about organically because that ability is getting cheaper and more practical. But, what you do with it thereafter is the big question. It’s a question of architecting yourself an environment where you can obtain value from that, and what that value is is going to be unique to you as a business. The same way that if we were talking in the early ‘90s, asking, “what could be the value of the Internet?” it’s a pretty broad question.

Andy Hobsbawm: Exactly. And I think the Internet of Things is as big as the Internet. It’s another layer to it, or evolution of it. Our focus, therefore, is very specific within that. We are digitizing physical products and connecting them to the web to manage their digital identity and real-time data to drive applications and analytics. And we’re doing this for consumer product brands in smart home, apparel and CPG.

WhichPLM: The actual technical underpinnings of IoT applications – and we don’t want to do a disservice to the amount of wizardry that goes into keeping GPS systems and things – aren’t that complex. Uber, as a good, ready example, is a phone that knows where it is and a car that knows where it is. But the value lies in the service layer that you put on top of that. Alongside Uber, what are some IoT applications that consumers are likely already familiar with in their day to day lives but don’t necessarily put under the umbrella of ‘IoT’?

Andy Hobsbawm: The digital identity and data management of products is critical from an enterprise point of view, because it goes across the entire lifecycle of the object: the materials that go into the product, how it gets made, shipped, retailed, bought and consumed and ultimately disposed of and hopefully recycled. Every point in this lifecycle is an opportunity for capturing and applying data to and from and about that thing, or the materials within it.

This includes the customer experience, so you may not even realize as a consumer that some IoT applications are going on behind the scenes. For example, if you walk into a shop to buy something, or order online and click and collect, the fact that that object is in store and is available to be bought, may very well be because of IoT applications in the background that are looking at inventory management and supply chain optimization just to make sure the right things are in the right place at the right time.

In terms of direct consumer applications that the user interacts with and controls there are a number of primary use cases. For non-electronic products, accessing information like supply chain data for product provenance data, is one example; manufacturing sustainability or ingredient sourcing and freshness is another; or getting instructions, how-tos and tips to get the most from using it.

Receiving personalized recommendations and content like recipes for food and drink, or style recommendations for apparel. Loyalty rewards can be triggered by scanning a product because the unique code embedded in that interaction acts as proof of purchase. Digital ‘passport’ services like scanning your product to act as a ticket to an event, or to unlock a level in a favourite mobile game.

Also, simply being able to ask an object a question – “Are you real? Are you not?” – is something that will make a lot of sense to consumers for certain products like medicine or luxury goods. And of course for brands, the ability to fight trade in counterfeit goods at scale is an essential application of IoT technology.

There’s an increasing amount of digital enablement of everyday products happening. We work with Coca Cola for example, using a toolkit with our platform that lets any smartphone use a browser with no app download to image recognise an object label or tag or even OCR numeric codes on the packaging, send it back to the cloud, apply personalisation rules and deliver back a dynamic, contextual experience in the moment.

Then, of course you have smart home electronic objects like a Nest thermostat, or a connected smoke alarm, or a smart washing machine and so on – with apps to control them. But I think that’s the more obvious one that most people would already be aware of.

WhichPLM: Our concern is that people limit their understanding to that last point to some degree – to smart homes, to intelligent things talking to one another. What you’re talking about is a digital identity for all physical things, and those physical things don’t have to be smart, they can be dumb. They don’t even necessarily have to be connected themselves. A big part of the discussion around the IoT is helping people to understand the concept that connectivity isn’t exclusive to things that are able to process their sensor data, and process the connectivity themselves.

Andy Hobsbawm: Exactly, there are many forms of connectivity. An object can be fully, permanently connected, but it could also be semi-connected, partially connected via other devices like smartphones. RFID tags using readers to connect to the network is exactly this principle – and in fact how the original term ‘Internet of Things’ was coined. Now, different types of smart packaging use smartphones as the ubiquitous ‘readers’ in everybody’s pockets.

The important things for us are:

  1. The identity is managed in a way that’s completely agnostic to the means of connectivity. Connectivity solutions are going to change – and the economics of those solutions is also going to change as costs fall and performance improves. Everything is in constant evolution, so it’s critical to have the software platform that provides intelligence for products abstracted from the on-product hardware connectivity solutions.
  2. We believe the web is the ultimate integration platform for everything. The more that things become part of the web, the more that they can be leveraged to create value. The problem with a lot of RFID systems right now is that they’re closed, so that data is hard to extract.

So, we’re an ‘equal opportunities’ IoT platform, if you like, in that we don’t discriminate against the intelligence of an object based on how much electronics it has in it.

WhichPLM: That’s a good way to articulate how the value isn’t only in certain things. You mentioned the importance of, if we’re talking about connecting as many things as possible, making the data broadly intelligible. A lot of our readers will be familiar with the systems integration issue, where big enterprise solutions are locked down.

Is that something that you believe is going to work itself out naturally? Or is that something that’s going to require a more pro-active approach to forcing people down the open API route?

Andy Hobsbawm: Great question. If you look at the Internet of Things at the moment it really is more of an Intranet of Things. There are lots of competing standards and protocols that inevitably come to a point of consolidation. But our belief is that the web is the ultimate way to make all of this information as shareable as possible. We’re pretty serious about this. Our Co-founders have actually worked with the W3C and submitted a set of standards for the ‘Web of Things’.

In our view, it has to be easy to make this data work together. It has to be easy to have open APIs that work like the rest of the web, because that’s where the value is, and how consumers want to experience things. Consumers want things to connect together in their digital lives in the most seamless, logical way and enterprises need data to connect and integrate in fast, powerful, cost-effective ways. Since all technologies are being consumerised, the web is the obvious integration platform.

WhichPLM: Let’s talk about RFA specifically; how receptive do you find apparel, footwear and accessories brands compared to other sectors in terms of understanding and embracing these kinds of things?

Andy Hobsbawm: Apparel, footwear and accessories, and fashion generally, is open to innovation because, like retail, it’s very close to the speed of culture. It trades on knowing what people want as close to the time they want it, and in shaping that demand. In that sense, there’s a lot of openness and appetite for innovation.

Conversely, a lot of fashion brands ‘grew up’ as core street brands and some are still working out the systems they need to operate globally. Suddenly, they can find themselves with hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, but without the kind of ‘fit for purpose’ information systems you would expect a company of that scale to have.

WhichPLM: When it comes to the sportswear market, with an element of connecting smart clothing, wearable technology, fitness trackers, do you think that’s taken off more because both sides of the equation are getting some value from the common currency of data.

As a brand’s executive, for example, I can get a ton of market intelligence, insight into my product’s being used, what my customers want, what they do in terms of physical exercise; and from a consumer point of view, I can also get that insight into myself – I’m able to track my own performance, connect to an app, track diet and so on. Is that the reason that you think connected products are gaining a foothold in that space first of all?

Andy Hobsbawm: Absolutely, the ‘quantified self’, or whatever term you’d prefer to use, is a powerful driver for consumer adoption of connected technology because people like being able to track their fitness and health. I think there’s a very logical, immediate point of connection: if you are buying clothing to do with an active lifestyle, it makes sense that you’re going to be open to being able to have applications that use that data about your lifestyle to give you information that you wouldn’t otherwise have, especially if you can track that from a performance point of view.

And from the manufacturer and retailer point of view, this becomes an opportunity for direct digital relationships with a consumer that opens up new opportunities for marketing, product development and customer service.

The bigger question is: how mainstream is all of this today and how fast is it moving?

WhichPLM: Exactly. If we take performance wear as the first step, once we get into purely aesthetic fashions the value becomes a little less obvious for the consumer in that that common currency of data becomes more of a one-sided question. A brand may know a lot more about you, but what are you getting from being this connected?

Andy Hobsbawm: I think that’s the really interesting territory that we’re trying to help brands move into. When the product itself becomes connected it becomes a digital thing, it leverages intelligence from the cloud as much as from any embedded processing capability. And most importantly, by becoming part of the web, it can become part of the wider digital ecosystem.

We just launched a collaboration for a smart jacket, for example, that comes with certain privileges in it, like getting you a VIP pass to a nightclub, gallery, restaurant or event like New York Fashion Week. As a Tottenham Hotspur fan, for example, I guarantee you that if my Under Amour sponsored team shirt gave me exclusive digital content and behind the scenes information on match day, I would scan the shirt in the stadium to get it.

WhichPLM: And that’s an artifact of the social media age as well. Perhaps we’ve always been willing to engage with brands and love brands, but now we’re willing to engage with brands and love brands publicly, in a way that we haven’t been able to before. So if you’re saying that the second era of the Internet is social, giving people an identity, then people suddenly willing to align that identity with a brand or product’s digital identity, then a lot of the value for pure brands is going to be in figuring out what that love and loyalty can mean in a world where that connection exists where it didn’t before.

Andy Hobsbawm: Exactly. And what role the object can play because it now has a layer of digital service to it. And when that should be integrated in part of a wider system. I think there are some very interesting brand collaborations happening. What happens if you put together Burberry or Nike, plus Coachella, plus Miller beer, plus Audi – what could you create together that curates an experience that is cooler, is better and more valuable? Those products then become conduits to a digital experience of life that you wouldn’t get if you bought another product. That’s a much more interesting, progressive ecosystem.

WhichPLM: In terms of machine learning, where is it likely to play in once we progress to this stage where we have products as actors and fast interconnected systems? Is there a tipping point whereby our, as people, ability to see the value becomes more limited? A decent AI, for want of a better world, is going to be able to make connections between physical things and all of the information that they generate that human beings wouldn’t be able to make.

In the same way that people talked about the Internet when it came about, a lot of the IoT is going to be very difficult to guess. Do you think there’s a point where it exceeds human capability where we can guess what the value is?

Andy Hobsbawm: The breakthrough in AI and machine learning is probably the most important recent development in computing. It certainly has a role to play in making an increasingly complex, sophisticated interconnected IoT world more instantly useful and relevant and easy for us. For instance, AI is a way of using all active and passive signals from our connected behaviours to surface things we may be interested in, or predict things we want without having to ask for it. That’s clearly the intention of virtual assistants from Google Home and Alexa to Siri and Facebook M.

But it could also be things that make very specific services better, like optimizing energy usage by learning preferences. Or take Airbnb as an example, who use machine learning to be able to recommend to you the optimum price that you should ask for your rental property, and if you put your price within 5 dollars of that algorithm recommendation you’ll be far more likely to rent it. There are all sorts of applications of machine learning.

If we’re living in a world where the identity of my jacket in the cloud is linked to my identity and my preferences, and I have a smartphone with me with Bluetooth switched on, and is open to receive broadcast messages from the world around me, and I have other things that can appear in my notification layers, then the object really becomes an agent on my behalf. It becomes something that, when I add products from certain brands to my life, my digital life gets more interesting. I think that’s a very interesting possibility.

One point I think is really important is not to get too lost in the future of what might be, because you can actually do something today. It’s really possible right now, with existing technologies, to start that journey. If the new competitive battleground is going to be about data and unlocking that from your products, it’s really important to start figuring that out. Rather than being overwhelmed by the possibilities, you need to just get the right people in the room, get the right partners and define your goals, your market situation, your possibilities and chart out your roadmap.

Lydia Hanson

Lydia Hanson has been part of the WhichPLM team for over four years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.

Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.

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