It’s more than 15 years since the British entrepreneur Kevin Ashton first coined the term “Internet of Things”. We’ve had plenty of time to turn the concept into reality, and indeed it’s possible to argue that most of the technical challenges have already been overcome: we have ultra-low-power microcontrollers; advanced sensor technology; and IPv6 and wireless technologies to provide the connectivity. And yet we’re still speculating about what the “killer app” might be, and when the market will really take off.
So what’s holding things up? Here we look at five of the major issues – mostly non-technical – that are the biggest roadblocks on the journey to IoT nirvana.
1. Ubiquitous connectivity
The fact is that the Internet is still not available in many areas of the world: and we’re not just talking about developing countries. There are still many areas of Northern Europe and the US that don’t have the coverage, let alone the network capacity, to enable reliable IoT connections.
If this were not a genuine problem, companies like Google would not be investing in leftfield ideas likeballoon-powered Internet.
And yet the whole concept of the IoT is predicated on the availability of a constant, reliable network connection. There’s probably no “magic bullet” to help us overcome this hurdle – the fact is that building networks takes time. But the really explosive growth won’t come until connectivity improves
2. Security and “trustability”
Most of the thinking about IoT security focuses on technical fixes that “prove” that people’s data will be kept safe. But we need to go further than that. We need to establish trust in users’ minds. This goes for both consumers and business users, who have real concerns that need to be addressed, on two broad levels.
The first is: “is a connected strategy safe?” If an industrial organization uses IoT technology to control a factory, does that open it to malicious attack? Similarly, does a connected home represent a security risk that could be exploited by, for example, a burglar? Is a connected car vulnerable to hacking?
The second is: “is my privacy assured?” Could competitors access my factory’s production data? Can my employer get access to my health data? Can my insurer see my driving habits?
And the solution here is only part technical. Of course, security measures need to be in place: but even if that’s successfully done, people need to trust those measures and understand how to keep themselves secure. Again, it’s a slow-burner.
OK, we have IPv6, but the question of common protocols and standards goes further than that. Someone recently counted more than 400 “standards” for IoT communication. These not only cover network-level connectivity (ranging from LTE-M in the cellular world to more familiar technologies like Bluetooth, 6LoWPAN and Zigbee), but importantly, also standardized data formats. And yet in a world in which data is seen as a powerful revenue generation tool, it may be some time until companies using the IoT see the benefit in using open standard data formats.
The likelihood is that genuine standards – of both types – will emerge in a variety of domains. But we shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of building a system in which – for example – cars from any manufacturer can talk to any toll booth in the world; and lightbulbs don’t have to come from the same supplier as the switches that control them.
4. Lack of “role models”
We all know that what would really get the IoT kicked off in any given sector is a convincing real-life application, preferably championed by a major transnational corporation – fictitious case studies cooked up in a marketing department just won’t do.
No-one wants to be the only diner in the restaurant, so this is a classic “chicken and egg” situation, which is actually made worse by the IoT community’s readiness to look for any and every possible opportunity that might benefit from connectivity. People become overwhelmed by the variety of possibilities, and finally, when they’ve read their 100th article on how great things will be in the IoT world, they become skeptical of the whole concept.
The answer? Well, it won’t solve the chicken-and-egg problem, but the industry should at least take a reality check and stop trying to concoct reasons why it will be successful in the future. Put away the hockey-stick graphs and devise a credible strategy that leverages connectedness in a real way.
5. “Show me the money”
People aren’t clear about the costs and return on investment (ROI) they’re going to get from IoT implementations. As we have already said, the IoT requires ubiquitous Internet connectivity, and that in turn requires infrastructure investment: but such investments are unlikely to take place until the revenue potential (or cost saving) is clear. Of course, this goes back to the lack of “role models” demonstrating the power of the technology.
And of course, it’s not just about the up-front cost of the infrastructure and connected devices. If we reach the stage where we rely on this technology, it needs to operate 24/7. It may be connected, and therefore able to tell us when it’s malfunctioning, but the on-going costs of maintaining all this gadgetry needs to be factored somewhere into the ROI equation.
We recently referred to a post written by John Moor, in which he asserted that we won’t understand the power of the IoT until it “disappears”: that is, becomes just a part of the way we do things. An essential pre-requisite for that to happen is that IoT technology needs to be adaptable: it needs to cater for the widest possible range of applications. Then, the connectivity requirements and the ROI equation change dramatically: because you’re not investing for the sake of a single application, you’re investing in a range of possibilities.
Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that the IoT will grow as a group of “islands of connectivity”, each optimized (and monetized) by a particular industry sector (for instance healthcare, or automotive, or industrial control). That is not the best formula for building an adaptable network. And here we see a balancing act: yes the players in those industries need to “get real”, and do what is necessary to make profitable use of IoT technologies today. But we also have to keep a strategic eye on the future, so that what we build now can benefit those applications that we haven’t yet dreamed of.