Social networks and location sharing apps took off in the late 2000’s. These megatrends made a huge impact on my life and led me to create ThingSpeak and (try) to invent the Internet of Nouns.
The Internet of Nouns
I grew up knowing the definition of the word noun. In English, a noun is a word (but not a pronoun) that is used for a person, place, or thing. This is what the Internet of Things gets wrong. IoT is only significant if the network of things is also aware of people and places. Imagine your internet-connected speaker not knowing its location or who your contacts are. Asking for the weather or calling someone would be cumbersome. It’s (or rather IoT’s) utility comes from knowing about nouns. Let me introduce The Internet of Nouns.
I spent a lot of time online back in the mid to late 2000s. With my company, I even traveled the United States helping design and support DSL internet roll-out. I was convinced that web applications were the future of software applications. I built web sites, server software, and prototypes of ideas. I loved following the tech trends and seeing companies try out new things that were chiefly web born. It wasn’t too long before I wanted to try my own ideas out at scale.
My high school friend and business partner, Jason Winters, and I kept up a long conversation about what the future was going to be like. We used to talk for hours almost everyday. Jason’s interests were hardware and mine were software, specifically web apps. Jason joked about how he wished he could wake me up earlier. In those days, I liked to sleep in. I don’t have that luxury now with a four-year-old. Jason gets his day going early. We lived a 1000 miles apart. He would say things like, “It would be funny to turn your lights on when I am ready to talk.”
In 2008, Jason Winters and I left our jobs to create ioBridge. We created hardware integrated with the web. The hardware needed the web, but this means the hardware could leverage the web. We had demos of simple hardware devices using the Google Calculator API. The hardware itself couldn’t even do floating point math, but now had effectively unlimited computational power by being on the web.
Twitter was the first social network that got my attention… although I had profiles at Friendster and MySpace. I loved the idea of Twitter from the beginning. Obviously Twitter is now a thing that we all know, but back in 2007, Twitter was still trying to figure out what it was. Most people used it for short status updates, like “Hans is eating at Qiznos”, and all of your other followers could react and post their equally uninteresting updates. I couldn’t stop obsessing about it. I joked with Jason… What if my toaster and thermostat were on Twitter.
My friend Jay Huie also kept talking to me about APIs. He impressed upon me how important it was for applications to be able to link to others. In my opinion, this is one reason Twitter took off with developers. Twitter had an API that allowed people to make apps and integrations that were not thought of by Twitter. Twitter is a platform and their functionality and APIs enabled others to build on top. Some used Twitter for marketing. Others used Twitter for news. I used Twitter as place for updates authored by my things.
Some location-based apps came online in the mid the 2000s. I think Foursquare was the company that invented the idea of a check-in. Foursquare leveraged the GPS module in your phone. The Foursquare app knew your raw latitude and longitude and turned that raw info into a place. It knew if you were home or at the bank, moving, or arriving at a restaurant. It knew if your friends were nearby and shared where they checked-in. Foursquare was fun and really interesting to me. They also had APIs.
ThingSpeak: Pulling It All Together
My contribution to the technology mindshare was pulling together parts of social networks, location-based services, and connected things. I built a platform called ThingSpeak. Of course, we had an API for others to build what they wanted to. I used it to build many things. It became my place to try out new combinations of things. Some of those things led to media attention, patents, and anecdotes at parties. I love seeing what others build. As of March 2020, there are over 1 million projects connected to ThingSpeak.
MyToaster: Social Networking for My Toaster
Back in 2008, I used to talk about my toaster being on Twitter. Mostly people asked me what Twitter was and others asked why. I didn’t exactly know at the time, but I thought it was interesting or at least funny to say. I do adore alliteration a lot. I used ioBridge and ThingSpeak to make a socially connected toaster. My toaster only updates its Twitter feed and thousands of followers of its binary state: Toasting or Done Toasting.
And thanks to a mention in Wired magazine, my work moved from fun stories at parties to boardrooms of the top manufacturers of consumer products. Together we have built connected lights, pools, speakers, tide gauges, weather stations, thermostats, air quality stations, garage doors, and you name it.
(I have written about the history of the Internet of Things and MyToaster before if you are interested in learning more about how my toaster kicked off a trend in connected appliances and home automation in the modern era.)
Everything is a Remix
Kirby Ferguson introduced us to the idea that everything is a remix. You innovate by coping things, making changes, and combining things. Understanding the basic elements of creativity and following this simple process will produce some interesting results.
I couldn’t have innovated without everything that came before me. And, my work became an influence for others who came next. And, in reality, there are no actual defined steps: it’s all gradients. Creativity isn’t magic. We all pose the ability to be creative. Bob Dylan’s first album had 11 cover songs on it. He found his voice by copying and the tedious work of experimentation. I recommend Kirby’s Everything is a Remix documentary and TED Talk.
My life changed by combining a few concepts together from trends happening around me. MyToaster on Twitter became my career and a significant turning point in the Internet of Things. So, here’s a special thanks to Twitter and Foursquare. I am forever entangled in this web, but I also look forward to what’s next. I am excited to see what gets created with everything that exists today and with more people understanding the elements of creativity.
So ask yourself… What will you make? What can you only invent? What “dumb” thing can you do? You have your own experiences and interests. Your perspective will yield innovations that only you can produce. I am on the edge of my seat.