French postal carrier vehicle (1901)

“The issue we have to face is that all digital, and especially [Internet of Things] business, is a way to disrupt us, and maybe a way to make us disappear,” said Muriel Barneoud, the CEO of Docapost, a division of France’s privatized postal service Groupe La Poste.

Barneoud was speaking during a supersession panel yesterday at CES 2016 in Las Vegas.

“We had a big discussion, a big reflection about, what is our core business?” she continued, "and what would be the world tomorrow for us and our vision for that world? And we think that our core business — at least in postal organization in Europe — is trust.”

Barneoud’s parent company is not an electronics maker. It’s an organization founded in 1879 as PTT, France’s national postal and telephone service.

Adapting to Change

The situation she described for her audience is simple, but profound: Her business was founded on the principle of exchanging data in the form and format that was trendy in the 19th century.

Suddenly her customers appeared to prefer something more suitable for the 21st.

So Docapost is an effort to apply the same system, with the same trust, to the new format. In this case, it’s the Docapost Digital Hub — a digital exchange for communication between people and devices, with the intent of including any kind of devices.

“We can provide any back office system that inventors can imagine... for provisioning, for billing, for implementing things very easily and very quickly,” she said.

'Rule Your Own Data'

She described Digital Hub as an infrastructure that extends between physical and logical devices, giving end users the platform they require to figure out what this Internet of Things thing is supposed to be about.

“If we want to develop and provide all services and all welfare,” she continued, applying a quintessentially European connotation to that word, “then you will need to be empowered to rule your own data.”

It’s the Platform

Just because a technology is the theme of a consumer electronics show does not necessarily mean it becomes a reality in people’s lives. Just ten years ago, the theme was how high-definition discs such as HD DVD would make everyone a content publisher.

  • For 2007: How 8-core CPUs would make desktop PCs the center of people’s lives, work, and fun.
  • For 2008: The elimination of set-top boxes, making TVs ready to show any content from anywhere without anything dangling or dongling off the side.
  • For 2009: Mobile digital television — a dedicated TV set in everyone’s pocket.

As a predictor of even near-future electronics trends over the last decade, CES has gotten it wrong more often than right.

It’s not anyone’s fault. CES represents the culmination of the electronics industry’s ideals of what it wants its key markets to become, not what those markets are evolving them into.

The problem, year after year, is that CES tends to focus on devices and not platforms.

You’d think this is because CES is largely produced by device makers, but in fact, a check of the show floor tells you that’s not the case: Intel, Qualcomm, Broadcom, Infineon, and Lattice Semiconductor all had just as prominent floor displays as any of the major device makers.

These companies are platform providers, and the fact that they’re part of CES means that the conference is not completely ignorant of the truths of the market.

Platforms, not devices, drive technology.

Job's Legacy

It took Muriel Barneoud, who leads a division of the French postal service, to make that point — in the absence of Steve Jobs, who used to make that point by convening a separate MacWorld show at or around the same week as CES.

(It was at MacWorld 2007, on the first week of January, that Jobs introduced the iPhone. That year, a handful of CES participants told me privately that the real theme of CES 2007 was Steve Jobs.)

While Apple is applauded in documentary films as the inventor of the modern device economy, in fact, Apple got it right by building the platform first: iTunes.

Docapost wants its Digital Hub to serve as an infrastructure platform for a system of exchange it can’t quite define just yet — nor, frankly, can anybody else.

That’s okay, because even Apple couldn’t define the iOS apps ecosystem at the time it created the thing. Its users defined its purpose, and that’s why it succeeded.

A Platform of What?

To say that an Internet of Things needs a platform doesn’t make sense at first, for folks who perceive the Internet as an all-inclusive platform.

You have things, you have an Internet... what’s the problem?

The problem, as any effort at diplomacy immediately illustrates, is a common language. It’s something the other participants in yesterday's CES supersession acknowledged, but which in their present position, they’re unable to resolve.

“We need telecommunications companies, hardware companies, software companies, telematics providers — to name just a few — to come together,” said Carla Archambault, director of Strategic Initiatives for Zipcar, “and really make this connectivity needed to fully enable such an efficient, convenient, and sustainable future.”

Earlier in her talk, Archambault took credit, on behalf of her company, for launching the entire “sharing economy.”

Zipcar is a service that enables folks to lend their cars to other folks by first connecting with one another through their service, and then using an RFID-based “Zipcard” to electronically unlock the doors of shared vehicles without people having to meet one another first.

The “connection,” so to speak, between both the Zipcard and the unlocking device to any kind of Internet is debatable.

But the IoT has become so nebulous a concept that almost any device that operates in an automated fashion can be retroactively enrolled as a participant.

And unfortunately:

Mike Soucie, who leads product strategy for connected thermostat maker Nest, suggested that the way to sell consumers on the ideal of IoT as a platform is to rename it.

“One of the challenges, when you’re talking to consumers, in using this idea of IoT — Internet of Things — or even ‘smart home,’ they don’t necessarily know what that is,” said Soucie, acknowledging that what CES promoters are calling the main theme of the show remains a question mark in the market.

“We prefer the term ‘thoughtful home,’” said Soucie, "and the idea that what Nest is really trying to create is a home that will effectively do the work for you, so you don’t have to.

"I think we have a general tenet, or premise, that there’s enough screens vying for your attention; and while the mobile device has really been a kind of driver for controlling our digital world, for the last eight years or so, automatically it makes sense that, as physical devices have embedded wireless technologies, we’re going to start controlling those with our phones — it makes sense, and there’s great value in that.”

But Nest’s key performance indicator, continued Soucie, is the degree to which its phone-based app is not used.

Specifically, whether Nest devices are behaving in the automated fashion that they should may be best indicated by how seldom Nest app users are activating the app.

This is an indicator of a legitimate problem for anyone interested in developing, or contributing to, an IoT platform: Unlike iTunes, where the goal is engagement, any platform whose goal is automation — in business, as well as the home — will be judged in terms of efficiency by its lack of engagement.

There goes advertising as a revenue center.

A solution, if there is to be one, may emerge from a system like Docapost.

CEO Barneoud perceives a future logistics system where the welfare (there’s that word again) of the user is guaranteed by people who are remotely dispatched to the various connected things — connected cars, households, thermostats, doorknobs.

She perceives the IoT as an enabler, quite literally, of postmen. From her perspective, who else can you trust if not your postman?

Title image "Voiture postale à l'alcool de 1901" by Jules Beau - [Collection Jules Beau. Photographie sportive] : T. 16. Années 1901 et 1902 / Jules Beau. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

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