Iota, led T-Mobile Vets, Seeks a Simpler Way to Navigate the ‘Internet of Things’

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just doing apps, they’re all developing toward the same platform, toward one type of consumer behavior, which assumes I want an app for everything I do.”

Smartphones, of course, are controlled by a few big manufacturers, software providers, and carriers. For small merchants and other businesses, Iota is pitching its system as a way to quickly build out a customer engagement platform, called “Tapp Engine,” that is much more wide-open: Merchants can do basically whatever they want with the Iota-powered web of RFID tags, going online to change the coupon, media, or other handouts that are connected with the tag whenever they want.

“Do whatever you want with it. You want to send [shoppers] a coupon along with this song? OK, then do it,” Stromberg says. “So now, without the mobile operator in the way, we’ve created this ecosystem where brands can directly engage consumers with this simple one-tap experience.”

Overall, Iota wants to be a platform company that makes NFC simple and friendly enough for everyone—enough so that they can step back and let other people implement the consumer technology, transitioning to being a big consumer data and retail service company.

“If this isn’t the form factor for you, put it in your automotive keyfob. If that’s not the form factor for you, put it in, like, a wearable bracelet. If that’s not the form factor for you, make it feel you’re your money clip or your wallet. You could put the experience in your phone as well, if that’s what you want to carry with you all the time,” Stromberg says. “We will license our embedded software to do different form factors. We are not becoming a hardware manufacturer—we need to seed a device, a very low-cost device, [to] get the platform up and running.”

There’s actually even more that Iota devices can do—as mentioned before, they have cellular and Bluetooth connectivity. That means you could purchase a simple voice and text plan from a carrier and pair the device to a tablet computer to make calls and send messages, theoretically dumping the need for a separate cell phone if you had enough other broadband to satisfy heavy-duty data use. Check out this report from Endgadget a few weeks ago profiling the new type of Iota design for those uses, a soft plastic bracelet-type thing called a Flex.

Iota’s marketing chief, Lisa Brown Spencer, jokes that the different capabilities almost makes the simple-looking devices seem “a little too Ginsu knife” when she’s listing them all.

“We’re not trying to replace a smartphone. We’re not trying to replace everything in it. We’ll never be able to play Angry Birds on this,” Brown Spencer says. “We’re trying to take an incredibly useful subset of things and lower the barriers to use.”

I get the sense that breaking down those barriers, both for consumers and businesses, is a big part of what’s driving the Iota team. With many years working in the wireless industry, they see a lot of potential in the mobile Internet that isn’t being exploited yet—and feel that they’re tapping into demand from other businesses that want to get ahold of that potential now. Stromberg says one major RFID tag provider has already indicated that it’s not interested in waiting for Google to define the market with its own NFC-enabled Android smartphones.

“So our low-cost device dramatically increases access and makes it so that a tag environment can be deployed. And our open environment means you’re not getting one corporate branded kind of tag,” Stromberg says. “We think the way to market for us is to start with one or two markets, to seed it, and build this tag experience. It’s kind of like building the mobile network—people start buying mobile phones. You build a tag network, and show how simple it is to use without having to access a smartphone—they get it. It’s very disruptive.”

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