acoustic coupler

The Whole Bit About Smart Networks of Things

8 minute read
Scott M. Fulton III avatar

My very first assignment as an IT consultant, back in 1980, was to design a system for automating how a clerk in a gas station convenience store would use a device called a “telephone acoustic coupler” — a cradle for the handset with a microphone in it — to upload the day’s sales totals to franchise headquarters prior to returning the store’s protective firearms to the safe, and closing the store for the night.

The device doing the uploading was a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, whose expansion interface gave it a tremendous 48K of RAM.

Its programs were delivered using a cassette tape player which, at one store, doubled as a playback device for the clerk’s mix tapes.

Tomorrow Never Dies

Each of the gas stations in the franchise had a satellite receiver. For one store, the dish caught the rain from thunderstorms and poured it through a leak in the ceiling to the sink in the ladies’ room.

The satellite dish was used for training purposes: literally, for beaming live programs for training convenience store personnel how to do things like tally up all the receipts, and avoid being shot.

All of these satellite receivers also had uplinks. They were used for sending questions via audio to the training sessions’ main television studio.

Within two miles of the station’s franchise headquarters was a major satellite receiving post. This facility would soon be used to provide the state of Oklahoma with its very first dial-up connections to the thing that had yet to be dubbed the Internet.

In the meantime, it was being used to receive teletype news feeds for the conservative pundits at the local talk radio station.

Beneath the satellite facility, in the basement of the building, a local bank was assembling into one room a massive storehouse of computing power that it dared to call a “data center.”

One of the bank’s considerations: leasing the space, with all its centralized power and supercooling, to other establishments to help recoup its costs.

'No Pencils Please'


One of my very first assignments as a journalist for a regional computing publication was to tour the data center. I was asked to leave my pencil in the waiting room. Graphite, I was told, was an electric conductor and could short out the mainframes.

At the health science institute downtown, Plato terminals were connected by dedicated cables to other Plato terminals throughout the world. Using those connections, several students and some professors would play a variant of Dungeons & Dragons.

With this latest variant, whenever the word “ONLINE” appeared in an orange box in the corner of the display, characters could take their turns simultaneously instead of in sequence.

We had an Internet of things, or at least an internetwork of sorts, right there in the heart of the cattle capital of America.

Each of the things in this network had enough processing power to run a thermostat or a toaster or an electronic security monitor, even today.

None of these things were any smarter or any dumber than their modern counterparts. They just weren’t all connected together.

Get Smart

Every week, somebody tells me how amazing it is that waves upon waves of “smart devices” are transforming the way I live. The Internet of Things has been elevated to a force of nature.

Connectivity, I’m told again and again, makes devices “smart.” This new era of connectivity will endow homes and offices with “intelligence.”

“The home is smart,” writes Dana Blouin in CMSWire. “The city will soon be smart.”

Shirts, writes Frank Palermo, are becoming “smart” — meaning, capable of sensing heartbeat and body temperature.

All these “smart” devices are producing so much data that few people actually know what to do with it.We need “smarter” analytics, a Software AG director told our David Roe, to make sense of it all.

In the last three months alone, at least three PR representatives have seriously asked me, what if it all goes wrong?

What if we lose control of all the smart things that have sprouted up around us like weeds?

What if, these three people asked, without any advance knowledge of one another, it all becomes SkyNet? Of course, that’s a reference to the self-aware, self-serving, omnipotent fountain of apocalyptic doom from the “Terminator” movies.

And would I please like to speak to a security expert who’s had personal experience with SkyNet(s) in the past?

Meanwhile, according to this survey, everyday people still don’t know what the Internet of Things actually is. You have to stop for a moment and think, whose fault is that, really?

Cool Hand Luke

What we’ve got here, to cite a different movie featuring the brilliant Strother Martin, is failure to communicate.

This is a publication devoted to the ideal of improving customer experiences. If we are as devoted to the customer as we claim to be, we need to take heed of our own advice, with respect to this Internet of Things.

We tell ourselves that smartphones and tablets are the new points of contact for customers with the companies that serve them.

And by extension, we imply that what’s behind those points of contact is, and should be, immaterial to the customer.

We want digital interactions to represent people — not things, not devices, not programs.

We build applications that present our companies in a proper light, and that represent our brands with dignity and intelligence.

Learning Opportunities

Well, if all of this is true, then why do we expect customers to care about what’s going on at the sensory end of things? Why are we pushing the wrong end of customer interaction, as the right way forward?

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not a bad thing to install sensors in places or into devices where the data they collect may be of use to someone. But “use” is the goal here.

There is nothing about a sensor that makes it smart, just as there is nothing about an eye that renders one clairvoyant.

For better than half-a-century, engineers have been struggling to build upon the ideal that the planet as a whole can be a platform for one great machine.

Today, the Internet is its connectivity fabric; the cloud is its processing center; the sensor devices in your thermostat and your shirt and the filling in your tooth is its keyboard.

A thermostat does not become smart simply because it has a router that connects it wirelessly to an Internet gateway. The network is just a plug — the plug that’s been missing for decades.


We make the mistake of assuming that cloud systems, social interaction, and mobile devices are all instantaneous cultural phenomena, brought about by some sudden strokes of genius by a few individuals immortalized by Aaron Sorkin screenplays.

The truth is, the ingredients for all of these phenomena have been sitting just outside our back porches for decades, some of them dormant, others being used for a bewildering array of strange and arbitrary purposes.

They all awaited a kind of preheating of the oven, if you will. The binding element that would bring all of these things together to form the platforms we’re so jubilant about today, had not risen to critical mass until just a few years ago.

The first microcomputers would not become the center of a new and vital industry, until there was the right mix of software and functionality to form a platform solid enough to sustain a customer base.

Not even the Internet was a cultural phenomenon, until bandwidth finally crossed the threshold of being reasonably inexpensive and readily available.

I remember the long years when the idea languished, at least figuratively speaking, in a dungeon.

The Internet of Things still lacks a platform, or what Steve Jobs would call a “killer app.”

The New Dawn

I used my first touchscreen smartphone in the mid-1980s. I didn’t find it in a shopping mall; a vendor showed it to me, a would-be manufacturer. I was told there would be one in every pocket by 1990. Then 1994. Then 1997.

What made the iPhone successful was not its screen or its color or its stereophonic sound, but the platform beneath it — the iTunes platform that Apple constructed with the help of iPod, years before the iPhone was ready for market.

All the “smarts” of the Apple system — the apps, media, and breakthrough services — are actually on this platform. The phones and tablets themselves, by comparison, are comparatively dumb and dull.

The miracles that may yet be performed by a world full of connected devices — determining why planes crash, why blood cells divide, why diseases form, how diseases may yet die, why the ice caps melt, how buildings will survive quakes, where the wind blows, where all the bees went — will not be enabled by making these sensors any “smarter” than they already are.

In fact, keep them dumb. Imagine all the IP-enabled sensors you could mass-produce if you could print them like postage stamps.

Two things need to happen. For one thing, the platform needs to come together.

But first and foremost, we need to get a lot smarter about what it is we should be talking about.

Otherwise, we will lose this opportunity.

The very thing that may bring everything together that needs to be brought together, may this moment be collecting rainwater and rusting outside a used car lot.

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