iot-roundtable
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Experts mull where next for Internet of Things

Like many hyped technologies, the Internet of Things (IoT) has been something of a slow burn. Talked about for many years now, the notion of IP- and sensor-equipped devices and components able to communicate across networks is fairly well established and understood. But making money from the IoT, protecting against threats, establishing interoperability and predicting where the early adopters will lie are other challenges entirely.

Incisor, a media group run by Editor Vince Holton, started out to stimulate discussion and raise awareness of Bluetooth. Now the group is turning its attentions to the IoT and, at a recent forum in Las Vegas, members of the group met to talk about where it goes next. The following highlights are taken from a video discussion which can be viewed here. (Full disclosure: IDG Connect is currently a partner of Incisor.)

What’s the Internet of Things?

On the question of scope, there was consensus that the IoT should be viewed as both a business-to-business and business-to-consumer phenomenon but some sense that clarity is still lacking when it comes to defining the area.

“There’s a lot of confusion when I talk to folks about IoT,” said Bill Morelli, Director of IoT, Machine-To-Machine and Digital ID at research firm IHS. “It’s not a single technology, it’s not really a single product.”

But the practical, non-techie advantages are more obvious, he added: convenience for consumers and, for enterprises, increased productivity, efficiency and a return on investment.

Early adopters

However, the panel had several views on which sector might become the iconic example of the power of IoT to change the world.

Some of these might not be as expected. For Morelli, being able to monitor water reserves could be interesting so that water companies can remove lossiness and provide a better service to customers. Like many, Morelli also sees the automotive industry as primed for change as ‘connected cars’ that deliver entertainment, information, telematics and more, enter the mainstream.   

Emmanuel Francois of building automation firm EnOcean Alliance was also bullish on automotive.

“There are so many reasons to make [sensors and connectivity within cars] mandatory that I think it will come quicker than we think,” he said, listing easier parking, security, better movement around cities, ecological advantages and controls over speeding drivers.

Paul Russell, VP of Engineering at protocol analysis technology supplier Frontline Test Equipment, agreed but cautioned that sellers must provide practical reasons to entice buyers, such as lower-cost motor insurance.

“There are lots of companies doing clever things but they’ll only be successful if we create the need.”

Russell also called for the IoT experts to help car makers work out the technical intricacies of connected vehicles such as which network technologies to adopt.

Andor Miles-Board, Marketing and Business Development Manager of automotive interoperability testing firm NextGen Technology, said automotive insurance could be a catalyst for so-called smart cities where data is used to make for better, greener towns.

“One of the real headline features for gathering data is metering road usage and driving styles for insurance. It gets people excited in some ways and nervous in others, depending on their driving styles, [but] the automotive market for anonymised data will drive smart cities.”

Roberto Aiello, New Business Manager at energy and water analysis firm Itron, said:

“My vote is still industrial [and energy]. It’s not about saving money, it’s about saving the planet. Just because a vocal minority complains about smart meters doesn’t make it a massive opposition.”

Ron Seide, General Manager of Business Connectivity Products at electronics protection technology Laird, said that return-on-investment metrics would drive IoT adoption - and those pointed to cars and insurance.

“At the risk of sounding philistine it really will be ‘follow the money’. If your insurance is thousands of dollars without IoT and with IoT its hundreds of dollars… that’s an obvious choice.”

Medical would also be a powerful IoT sector, Seide said:

“In medical you’re not talking about dollars, you’re talking about your life. You hand over blood pressure, telemetry… in return you get longevity.”

Mick Conley, Development Manager For New Technology Certification and Interoperability at safety testing not-for-profit UL, said asset tracking in consumer packaging is a current example of the IoT in action and medical “might be marquee five years down the road” but he argued that the connected home is “a great Petri dish for IoT”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chris Boross of Nest Labs and President of Thread Group, which is helping set standards for connected homes, agreed.

“We see Thread having a place in the connected home because that’s where we see the most draw. It could absolutely be used outside the connected home and we think there are other areas where it would be applicable. If you can make it easy enough for homes then taking it into another setting is going to be a lot easier than doing it the other way around.”

Bumps on the road

Security and data privacy were recognised as twin obstacles to be overcome.

IHS’s Morelli said consumers, depending on their age, are today more willing to trade off some privacy but predicted their becoming “very aware of metadata” and suggested that data privacy concerns might already be holding back the IoT in medical.

NextGen’s Miles-Board questioned the ability of politicians to control progress.

“Whether [privacy controls are] going to be decided by Washington or European governments and directives is debatable,” he said. “At the end of the day, users will decide based on the utility they get for offering that data up.”

Laird’s Seide said security would need to be highly scalable to authenticate and encrypt traffic coming from millions of devices. And he repeated a famous quote relating to privacy and the advantages of ceding some information.

“Scott McNealy at Sun Microsystems said years ago ‘you have no privacy, get over it’. And, once having got over it, what do you get in return?”

Similarly, UL’s Conley forecasted that savings and other advantages would need to outweigh objections while Nest’s Boross said opt-in processes and acting transparently would help overcome concerns.

Networking

Interoperability and connectivity remain hot potatoes but the general consensus was that IP sitting on various network technologies on a horses-for-courses basis would prevail.

Laird’s Seide said the IoT would nicely complement IPv6.

“IPv6 has been around for more than a decade and nobody has really bothered to adopt it,” he argued. “IoT is the application that finally causes that to occur.”

Itron’s Aiello agreed that IPv6 would be “foundational” but said he expected various networking approaches dependent on usage scenarios.

UL’s Conley agreed with Aiello.

“There’s going to be room for a lot of legacy technologies,” he said. “More addressable space and more capacity are needed but there will also be a need for low-power, low-speed connections as alternatives to “fat pipe” approaches.

Conley was sanguine on the related topic of standardisation, saying:

“I don’t see a train wreck out there, I just see a lot of work.”

Nest’s Boross, even speaking in his capacity as President of the Thread Group, still sees multiple approaches being valid.

“There’s not going to be one wireless network for all those [usage cases] or one wired network. The common denominator over time is it’s all going to be IP communications. Moore’s Law has created a situation where IP can run on inexpensive devices in the home or in a commercial setting. Thread is useful for specific opportunities and interoperable with others.”

EnOcean Alliance’s Francois predicted that companies in industries such as heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) will have to adapt or disappear rapidly.

“2015 will be once again a massive challenge for all these players and for these Thread is a threat.”

Big Data

The panel next turned to what could be done with the vast amount of data that the IoT will churn out. Laird’s Seide made an analogy here with the human brain.

“The most powerful tool we have is not to remember but to forget - to let data go. Right now we’re just gathering information but we don’t know what to do with it.”

IHS’s Morelli agreed that there is a danger of “paralysis by analysis” but felt that smart cities projects, for example, would create test cases to establish how sources of information are integrated to extract value and meaning.

On the eve

In summary, there is plenty of positive sentiment towards IoT but also, perhaps, a sense that we’re only on the eve of the big changes.

For some in the industry change will likely be tough and IHS’s Morelli noted that some process automation players are “very, very conservative and reluctant to move away from wired networks, many of which aren’t IP.”

Itron’s Aiello made the crucial point that new ecosystems, partnerships and ways of looking at the future would need to be formed.

“Companies that never talk to each other and don’t even know [each other] exist” would need to get together, he said.

A whole new world, in effect, as the Internet of Things advances.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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