Technology used to be pretty simple. If you had some technical know-how, a few transistors and a soldering iron, you could go far. William Hewlett and David Packard built a billion dollar business in a garage and later, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did the same. It was a time of amazing opportunity.
Later, hardware got much more sophisticated and there was not much you could do without a multimillion dollar facility, so the hackers moved to software. Then came the Internet and hackers moved from garages to their bedrooms. With a laptop and a little bit of coding expertise, you could do impressive things.
Today, both hardware and software have become incredibly advanced. Experts in artificial intelligence are so rare that they’re being paid like sports stars. Yet this time around, tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, IBM and Google are themselves making resources available, allowing anyone who wants to access some of the world’s most advanced technology.
A Plumber’s Dream
Every building owner fears water problems. Even a small leak, if it goes unnoticed, can result in thousands of dollars in water damage. To make matters worse, because a leak can come from deep inside a building and then seep through to an entirely different place, it can be difficult for a plumber to figure out exactly where the leak is coming from.
AquaSeca is a startup that thinks it’s found a solution. It has created a small “wearable for pipes” that can monitor water flow within a building. So when a leak or some other type of abnormal water flow occurs, it can identify the source of the problem and alert the building owner. Through early detection and identification, building owners can save a ton of money.
It all involves sophisticated technology, of course. Once the solution is scaled, it will have to monitor thousands of sensors, connect them to customer’s devices and integrate complex analytics and machine learning algorithms. Even a decade ago, that would have been out of reach for even major technology companies.
Yet today, a startup like AquaSeca can get all the processing power it needs from Amazon’s AWS service, link the sensors through its Internet of Things platform and access powerful machine learning tools by accessing TensorFlow, the library of machine learning tools that Google has outsourced.
Any Car Can Be A Smart Car
One of the biggest trends today is smart cars, the fusion of artificial intelligence, automobiles and the Internet. This is especially helpful for fleet managers, because it allows dispatchers to assist drivers in real time by integrating information taken from the sensors with data back at the home office. That helps them lower costs and improve service.
For example, if a driver runs into trouble on the road, a dispatcher can access a “vehicle health report” and get some idea what the problem is. They can also know exactly where the driver is through GPS and relay that information to a service team or, if needed, emergency responders, like police and paramedics.
ActiveScaler is a startup company that retrofits everyday vehicles to transform them into smart cars. It’s technology includes voice recognition, so that drivers can control settings in the car with voice commands (e.g. turn lights on), video analytics to warn drivers about an impending collision with another car or pedestrian and even facial recognition to ensure that only authorized drivers are operating the vehicle.
Presently, ActiveScaler supports over 20,000 vehicles on four continents. It runs on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and also taps into other resources from the Redmond giant, such as its CNTK library of machine learning tools and HDInsight, its advanced cloud analytical package.
Google Glass For Factories
In April, 2012, Google’s “X” division announced Google Glass, which allowed people to take pictures and video as well as access the Internet through a heads-up display incorporated into what appeared to be an ordinary pair of eyeglasses. Users would operate the device inconspicuously through voice and touch commands.
Yet almost immediately the product raised concerns. The idea of someone being able to walk around, recognize people through face recognition, pull up data on them and then take pictures and video without being noticed raised serious concerns. Some also worried about the possibility that hackers could gain access to a person’s entire field of vision.
Google stopped producing Google Glass in January 2015, but the potential of the technology for specialized uses is still intriguing. For example, a startup called SeToOS has built a prototype for use in industrial environments. A field service employee, for example, can use the product to recognize a particular model of machine to be repaired, pull up a service manual and be guided through a service call with graphics shown on the heads-up display.
The company did not disclose exactly how it’s technology is built, but as should be clear by now, there is no shortage of resources to draw from. Visual recognition, the Internet of Things and advanced analytics are all freely available, either through open source or through API’s, to just about anybody with an idea for an application.
The New Competitive Advantage
To be clear, AquaSeca, ActiveScaler and SeToOS are early stage startups. Much like Hewlett Packard or Apple in the early days, they are still largely in “garage mode.” They have no billion dollar research budgets or industrial labs, but they are still able to access technology that would have seemed like science fiction a decade ago.
It used to be that companies like these would be in opposition to tech giants. Firms like IBM and Microsoft guarded their proprietary assets jealously. Yet today, they, as well as newer companies like Google and Facebook, are freely offering their intellectual property to anybody who has an idea. In some cases, the charge a usage fee, but in other cases they actually open-source their technologies.
It’s not only tech savvy Silicon Valley startups that are benefitting either. Mendix is a company that provides a platform that helps mid-size and large enterprises to connect to resources like these with minimal back end integration. In fact, it’s so user friendly that people like marketing managers can actively participate in developing applications. Perhaps not surprising, demand is hot and the company is growing at more than 100% annually.
Yet that leaves a question: Why are the tech giants sharing their technology so freely? It wasn’t so long ago that they would have closed it all off in a proprietary platform and sought to crush anyone who challenged them. Now, they are allowing everyone to access what their best minds produce. What gives?
The reason is that today collaboration is the new competitive advantage. By offering their technology as a service, rather than merely as a product, the tech giants are earning enormous revenues. Also, the more widely their technology is used, the faster it will improve. Power, in other words, no longer resides at the top of value chains, but at the center of networks.