The Physical Web: Google's Trojan Horse gift to the Internet of Things

Google's new initiative, The Physical Web, aims to create a URL-based system for the Internet of Things

We've been told for a few years now that the Internet of Things -- common household, industrial and public devices enabled with sensors -- will transform how we work, play and interact with the world around us.

What we haven't heard a lot of detail about is how the Internet of Things will actually operate: How will information be transferred from IoT sensors to other devices and computers? How and with what will the sensors be programmed? How will we strike the balance between accessibility and security?

Google thinks it has the answer with "The Physical Web," an ambitious initiative to create "a system that lets someone walk up and use a device with just a tap."

It's also a potentially self-serving initiative, as the service dispenses with the need to download apps in order to interact with an IoT device. Rather, The Physical Web relies on a URL-based identity and communication system.

"The Physical Web must be an open standard that everyone can use," Google writes. "The number of smart devices is going to explode, and the assumption that each new device will require its own application just isn't realistic. We need a system that lets anyone interact with any device at any time."

That all makes perfect sense to me, and The Physical Web's operational model -- as a "discovery service where URLs are broadcast and any nearby device can receive them" -- is much more likely to scale successfully with the billions of smart devices expected to populate the IoT.

In Google's vision, people will be able to use vending machines, rental cars, appliances, devices in retails stores, and thousands of other objects that contain URL-accessible functions, features and information.

"Once any smart device can have a web address, the entire overhead of an app seems a bit backward," Google says.

It's also worth noting that once a smart device has a web address, it can be cataloged and mined for information by the Internet's largest collector and monetizer of information -- Google.

Many of us -- myself included -- have made a permanent devil's bargain with Internet companies: They offer enticing features and services, and we offer information about ourselves.

With the Internet of Things, the stakes get raised even further: People with smart devices will broadcast their activities not only to their carriers (and the NSA), but to Internet companies and other businesses with an IoT presence.

That's what most of us expect. But it sure seems as if a URL-based system for the IoT would provide Google with more benefits than anybody else.

Without trying to sound paranoid, it's worth thinking about, especially when you look at Google's overarching information collection strategy (examples abound, including here, here, here, here and here).

As for enterprises, "a system that lets anyone interact with any device at any time" sure seems like a potentially risky double-edged sword. The Internet of Things holds a lot of promise; let's hope we approach it with common sense.

This story, "The Physical Web: Google's Trojan Horse gift to the Internet of Things" was originally published by CITEworld.

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