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Transcript

Russell Brown: Kia ora koutou. I'm Russell Brown and this is the "Internet of Awesome Things" brought to you by Spark and this is a sound you probably haven't heard in a while: [dial-up modem sound]

We don't have to dial into the internet anymore because we're always on, but it's not just us out there. It's 14 billion devices, not counting phones, computers, tablets or TVs. Those devices are collectively the internet of things. It's already twice the size of the internet of us and according to analysts at Gartner next year we'll grow to 20 billion things. In this podcast series, we'll look at what those things are, what they do for us and what they could be doing for your business. But first, where did it all come from? The first thing and the internet of things actually appeared years before most of us got online and it wasn't just a gimmick. It solved a real problem. The programming team at the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, like coders the world over, liked their caffeinated beverage. For most of the 1970s there was a popular Coca-Cola vending machine in the department's main terminal room.

But when the department expanded, most of the programmers found themselves on a different floor to the Coke machine. Nobody liked going all that way to find the machine empty. So in 1982 a couple of staff worked out a solution. They installed sensors in the machine and connect them to the main departmental computer. They could check the machine status without having to walk there. Bazinga! But there was more, someone knocked up a server programme which showed how long the Coke bottles had been on each shelf, which told the team how long the bottles had had to chill. So they not only knew whether the machine was stocked, but where to find the cold ones. Access to this mission-critical data was soon extended to any network computer at the university, and in the process, anyone on the internet's forerunner, ARPANET.

A lot has happened since then and the internet is to put it mildly, a whole lot bigger. But that first system performed a task inventory management, which is still relevant and essential to many businesses today. The system was broken when Coca-Cola hauled the machine away and replaced it with one that could accommodate a new bottle shape. It was a while before anyone got around to hacking the new machine, but the next chapter was already brewing thousands of kilometres away in New Zealand. In 1990 Peter Munn took voluntary redundancy from Telecom New Zealand and set up a new venture, Harvest Electronics in his garage in Masterton. Harvest's first products were alarm-diallers, devices that picked up an electronic alert and transmitted it over a dial-up data network. Over a couple of years, those diallers evolved into something much bigger: a system that would allow Coca-Cola to monitor the status of its own vending machines. By the end of the decade, Harvest technology was helping the company monitor and restock 60,000 Coke machines across New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. That part of the business was spun off in 2000 and is now owned by Coca-Cola itself. But inventory management and asset control are still fundamental applications for the internet of things. But who is this guy, Peter Munn? Well, he's with me right now from Masterton.

Russell Brown headshot for bio

Russell Brown
NZ tech journalist

Russell Brown has made a career out of getting his head around complicated topics and communicating them. He's been creating content for the internet since 1993, and he was the first blogger to win a national media award. Russell is a go-to commentator on the media, technology and music industries.