In the near future, the smartest products will connect not just to the Web but also to a whole network of people.
The Internet of Things, a moniker for physical object that are connected to the Web and can be controlled by your laptop or smartphone, is just the beginning.
According to Mark Bonchek, chief catalyst at Orbit & Co., and Sangeet Paul Choudary, a Singapore-based entrepreneur and blogger, there is a new wave of connected objects on the horizon. In an article the two co-authored in the Harvard Business Review, they write: "The real change will happen when products aren't just connected, but social. Instead of the Internet of Things, we should be thinking about the Social Network of Things. To take advantage of this shift, you need to start thinking about the social life of your products."
Bonchek and Choudary say making a product social may not be what you're thinking. Your refrigerator is not going to have a Twitter account. However, your different devices will be made to start "collaborating around a shared purpose" together.
Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app updated in real-time by its users, is a perfect example of the social network of things. The app, which was just acquired by Google for $1.1 billion, allows users to update information like road conditions, traffic, and accidents to help people find the best route to get to work, back home, or to the store.
"Waze shows us how the cars of the future will not only connect to each other but also leverage the collective intelligence of that community of connected cars," Bonchek and Choudary write. "We can see this in other areas as well. Connected e-readers already help every individual reader benefit from the actions of the community. Nike is betting on a future with connected shoes, where each individual shoe learns from the data aggregated from a network of connected shoes. Social products leverage the power of the community to learn from other products."
This shift to social will also change competition between companies.
"In an age of social products, competitive advantage comes not from product features but from network effects," the duo writes. "Companies succeed by having products that better leverage the intelligence of the network of other connected products. This is a shift in mindset from standalone-product thinking to connected-platform thinking."
So, how can you make a social product? Read below for two tips from Bonchek and Choudary.
1. Make a smart product.
Bonchek and Choudary say that you first need a smart product, like Nest, which makes Wifi-enabled thermostats and smoke-detectors that can be controlled with a smartphone or tablet. But you don't have to be a product-maker necessarily. You could use someone else's devices the way Waze does, or create a device that functions with open APIs like Nike FuelBand. You might also consider partnering with a device-maker the way utility companies partner with energy software-maker Opower.
2. Implement a social component.
This is where the Social Network of Things rears its collaborative head. "This requires a platform where people and products are connected in a collaborative network," the two write. "Each individual product and each user benefits from being part of a community of fellow products and users. For example, Nest's thermostat and smoke detector work together. When the alarm detects carbon monoxide, it tells the thermostat to turn off the furnace." Waze uses drivers to supply information, which is then aggregated across the network for others to use. Soon, smart cars will share information with other cars, the duo said, sending out their speed and location to alert others on the road if they are close.
Bonchek and Choudary say that innovators do not have to create the product, social network, or user base all themselves. Collaborating with existing networks and devices can be a very successful way to make your product social. Instagram uses a connected product, the smartphone camera, to form the basis of its social network. After getting acquired by Facebook, Instagram grew tenfold. Qualcomm Life is creating a platform to connect medical devices and people through its acquisition of HealthyCircles, a social network of doctors, patients, and family. Nike is connecting its shoes and network of users so that customers can compete against each other and themselves.
WILL YAKOWICZ is a reporter at Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and politics at Patch.com, and his work has been published in Tablet Magazine and The Brooklyn Paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @WillYakowicz