The Internet and the End of 'Things'

In the next twenty years we will see the virtual disappearance of many everyday physical items, including books (more ebooks will be sold in the US next year than paper books), paper currency and most single-use consumer electronic (does anyone even need an alarm clock anymore?).
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The "Internet of Things" is everyone's new favorite buzzword. This increasing interconnectedness (is that a word?) will lead to the end of various "things" that at one time were commonplace. In the next twenty years we will see the virtual disappearance of many everyday physical items, including books (more ebooks will be sold in the US next year than paper books), paper currency and most single-use consumer electronic (does anyone even need an alarm clock anymore?).

Like the remote control (yes, there is an app for that) and business cards (how are these still a thing?), there are many physical items in our lives that will disappear in the year to come. The three soon-to-be obsolete things that I want to focus on are the key, the mail, and physical crime.

The Key: I am an angel investor in KeyMe, a startup that makes digital copies of your keys to help avoid lockout charges. I did this even though I believe the decline of the antiquated pieces of metal we all carry around in our pockets is inevitable. We've been using keys for centuries. There are currently 700,000 copies of keys made every day (down from nearly a million a few years ago), but soon biometrics, digital access points or some other technology that no one except Google has thought of yet, will give us entry to places and things.

The trend began in the automotive market: about 70 percent of the 250 million vehicles in the US now have an electronic entry with a push button start. The average replacement time for a car is four years, which is why the key market for cars has experienced a rapid and significant change. The hotel key card underscores this trend. Hotels made the change due to the cost of key replacements -- when was the last time you got a physical key when checking in? Offices have the same dynamic with constantly changing tenants and employees; key cards now dominate office doors.

The physical key's last great bastion of strength is the home. Electronic entry points represent less than 0.1 percent of the residential market, but the cycle time for home locks is more than 25 years. As costs of digital access points continue to drop more and more homes will be made and refurbished without metal keys. Once declining revenue force enough locksmiths out of business, how long until the companies making key cutting machines disappear? Once the machine makers go out of business, spare parts for existing machines will become scarce (3D printing of parts will partly offset this effect). This "tipping point" (I tried, I really, really tried not to quote Malcolm Gladwell) will come slowly due to the home replacement cycle, but at some point thereafter the physical key as we know it will be gone. So enjoy your keys while you can and use KeyMe to keep a digital copy and avoid exorbitant lockout fees.

The Mail: We recently moved into a new office with a spectacular view of the The Farley Post Office in Manhattan. Looking at this magnificent right acre building in midtown Manhattan made me think about the time when this building was the bustling heart of our interconnectedness (yup, I checked, it's a word). It is now a beautiful museum of an antiquated and eventually dead form of communication.

The United States Postal Service traces its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress, where Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general (Ben was the Elon Musk of his generation). It has approximately 600,000 employees (3rd largest employer in the US behind the federal government and Wal-Mart), 31,000 locations (post offices) and revenue of about $66 billion... and loses about $6 billion a year. The volume of mail sent has declined by 10 percent over the last three years. While we are sending less mail, it's the type of mail that we are sending that reinforces the death spiral.

Letters have become emails. Birthday cards are now Facebook wall posts. Event invitations are Paperless Posts. Bills are increasingly sent electronically. Magazines deliver themselves directly to your tablet. What type of mail are we still getting? Well, two years ago the amount of mail that is "junk" passed the 50 percent mark and is still rising fast. The 10 percent decline of total mail over the last few years will accelerate as all bills and magazines move to electronic distribution. How often will you check your mail when 90 percent of it is junk (sadly no spam filter on your mailbox)?

Soon the infrastructure to support the delivery of the mail will get too expensive. Given the important role the post office plays in today's society, it will exist well beyond its economic viability, but at some point in our future, the trends seem to point to the inevitable disappearance of mail.

Physical Crime: Technology has already had tremendous impacts on crime in society, from increasing the tools that police use to fight crime (watch the first season of The Wire to understand how bad the police technology used to be) to making crime less lucrative. When all devices are connected to the web, their value significantly diminishes in the eyes of a criminal: why would someone steal an iPhone with a kill switch that cannot be used or sold? Why steal a car that shuts itself down and alerts the police to the car, and your, location?

Cameras are proliferating and increasingly digital (the Big Brother debate notwithstanding). If you're caught on camera committing a crime, and facial recognition software brings the police right to your door, how long until you stop breaking the law? In twenty years will someone rob a person with no cash and a device that requires two biometric entry points, all while the robbery is caught on six different cameras? Sadly all forms of crime and violence are not subject to technological disruption in the near-term, but most types of personal and property crimes will face this shifting balance of benefit versus cost. Criminals are mostly rational actors (crimes of passion obviously don't apply), and when the costs are rapidly increasing (likelihood of getting caught) and the benefit (value of selling what you steal) rapidly decreasing, some types of crime will be all but eliminated.

So while the "Internet of Things" will bring many new things into our lives, this bright new future will force us to say goodbye to some very familiar aspects of our everyday lives. We can debate how long it will take for these items to disappear, but I think we can all agree that at some point, these things will be history.

What other things do you think future generations will only be able to see in a museum?

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