Opinion: Apple, the infrastructure company

Are smart cities a mobile product?

Smart cities, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and the march of the robots – these sci-fi fantasies are almost ready for prime time, blurring the lines between daily life and tech. Digital transformation is impacting every part of life, and Apple has an opportunity it hasn’t yet explored.

Smart infrastructure

Infrastructure is becoming smarter than we are. Even while our attention spans shrink, machines are becoming capable of analysing our data to tell us what we need before we know we need it. That’s a big claim, and we’re not there yet, but like it or lump it that’s how it’s going.

With everything connected the demarcation between consumer, enterprise and infrastructure technology markets is also becoming less clear. This is clearly evidenced across the Internet of Things, a market in which multiple connectivity standards (many developed for specific uses, such as oil and gas) are holding back the entire evolution of the space. Apple’s work on HomeKit is one attempt to harmonize this kind of standards-based chaos, but why stop there? Why not take it to the next level.

Customers everywhere

Think about smart meters. Water, gas and electricity utilities across the planet are installing millions of these. US President Obama invested $3.4 billion in this sector way back in 2009 and around 50 million US homes already have them installed. Over 700 million smart meters will be deployed worldwide by 2020. We’re told smart meters will give us better control of how much energy we use and help utilities cut waste and handle supply more efficiently.

Like so much across the connected infrastructure, these solutions could use a little innovation. Many of the first generation solutions use different connectivity standards, others are insecure (hacked smart meters cost electricity companies $400 million in lost revenue in Puerto Rico in 2010).

Some meters are unsafe -- Ontario’s Electrical Safety Authority recently ordered 5,400 smart meters be removed (at a cost of $15 million) after eight of the meters caught fire in just two months. UK utility British Gas had to begin encrypting smart meter data when burglars figured out how to hack into it in order to identify empty homes to rob. There are real challenges here, and challenge is opportunity.

Innovation first

Some first generation meters already need replacing. "The pace of technological innovation may well leave the current generation of meters behind and leave consumers in a cycle of installation, de-installation and re-installation," warned the UK Institute of Directors.

No one wants to spend billions (an estimated £11 billion in the UK alone) on smart meter deployments today only to need to replace all those units in a few years time, because better technology appears.

That’s why well-resourced larger brands like Apple could make a difference, leveraging technologies they already possess. In Apple’s case it already understands mobile, has a secure mobile OS it already knows how to repurpose for different applications, and has the technological and manufacturing resources to develop infrastructure solutions that exploit its technologies.

Toward an iOS infrastructure

I imagine an iOS-based smart meter would be secure, easy to upgrade and inherently compatible with mobile solutions. Because it is based on a mature OS, it should be relatively easy to ensure energy consumers get deep access to the information they want. Utilities could gain advanced monitoring tools, including the capacity to identify faults before they happen, and switching providers could be as simple as sharing an authorization code. Anonymized data could feed into data analytics engines to deliver all kinds of useful insights (energy consumption data is already used in this way).

I agree that Apple has no experience building solutions for infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean anything. Apple had no real experience building phones before iPhone, music services before iTunes or payment services before Apple Pay. Consumer markets are weak, and the company is already invading another market it traditionally never played in, the enterprise. When current estimates suggest utilities will invest $17 trillion in global infrastructure through 2035, why would Apple not want to grab a slice of this pie? In which parts of the smart infrastructure could iOS make a difference? I think there are areas in which iOS makes sense within infrastructure so I fully expect Apple to explore the potential. Because the digital transformation sparked off in part by the iPhone is changing everything, and Apple itself will not be immune.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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