Internet of Things: What comes next?

Incisor, a media group run by editor Vince Holton, recently held a London event where Internet of Things (IoT) experts debated what comes next for this technology with immense potential. The following excerpts are taken from a video discussion which can be viewed here. Some light edits have been made for sense and flow. (Full disclosure: IDG Connect is a media partner of Incisor.)


VH = Vince Holton, Editor, Incisor

WF = Will Franks, entrepreneur, and Chairman of the Wireless IoT Forum

Amit = Amit Gattani, Senior Director of the Embedded Solution Group at semiconductor firm Micron

JL = Joe Lomako, Business Development Manager, M2M, Underwriters Laboratories (UL)

AG = Alex Green, Senior Research Director at research firm IHS Technology

DB = David Bean, CEO of protocol analysis tools maker, Frontline Test Equipment

MV = Martin Veitch, Editorial Director, IDG Connect


VH: Are we feeling frustrated that nothing more has happened in all the time that has passed since we started talking about the IoT?

WF: Not at all. We’re actually making very good progress in many areas. Because it’s such a broad area I don’t think people realise just how many items are already connected, whether its street lights, parking spaces or within connected homes or the automotive industry. When M2M started, the internet didn’t exist and now what we’re taking is everything we know about the internet and mobile internet and expanding our vision of what it can be.

Amit: The IoT started as concept 20 years back but it’s only in the last five years you’ve had commoditisation of the enabling technologies whether it’s sensors, connectivity, Big Data analytics… All these things are coming together to make the IoT commercially viable and useful. Now it’s a matter of interoperability, not, ‘hey what can I do in my silo?’


AG: Are you seeing any barriers or areas where things are slower?

JL: I feel frustrated and disappointed to a certain extent even though manufacturers have had some great traction. Being in a test lab I feel the pain of my customers and the hurdles they have to get over even before they get to the lab. Take a cellular product: they have to understand what type of network they’re going on, where they want to market it in the world. There are so many areas to choose from so they have this chicken-and-egg scenario and we try to help them through that in the early days. A lot of companies out there are just one-man bands. These module manufacturers produce fantastic developer kits so everyone can build a product… a guy that’s a baker or a plasterer has taught himself how to build IoT products.

DB: A lot of the chip vendors have got the barrier to entry really low to get into the IoT space. The number of startups you see on the west coast and California is phenomenal. The potential barrier that worries me is the end user. We have to make sure this works and works well. If I buy a basketball with a Bluetooth module that’s going to send data up to the cloud and that doesn’t work, I’m not going to spend an extra $200 on it. A great example is the automotive space. There’s a lot of hype around the connected car space but if you look at the JD Power Associates survey results, the biggest complaint for people buying new cars is infotainment and telematics - that connected car space. The quality isn’t there yet and the automotive industry has been working on that for a long time.


AG: Is the issue at the data level or implementation?

DB: The quality of the implementation. It’s not just the car OEM… they rely on the phone guys and how it works with the phone. The interoperability is key to the end user experience.


MV: Are there too few or too many standards?

DB: It’s a lack of specific standards. A lot of the bigger organisations are trying to put the mechanisms in place but the standards have specific challenges they need to address in order that consumers have this seamless out-of-the-box experience.


VH: Have the barriers of entry have actually become too low?

DB: I think that’s part of the problem, it’s not the core problem which goes back to the spec. I can go out and build an IoT device in my garage tomorrow and get it out on the market and if people start using it and don’t have a great experience and they walk away and they say, ‘it’s overrated’. Some of the standards bodies haven’t come to the realisation that issues need to be addressed.

Amit: IoT is a lot broader than just consumer. From an industrial perspective you can make factories a lot smarter, fleet management a lot better. Those are the areas where you can get tremendous improvements and efficiencies, cost saving and workflow improvements, and that’s really encouraging. Those good use cases will really help.

WF: We have too many standards and too many proprietary standards, which is very typical of this stage in an industry. Companies try to get an advantage by putting a proprietary technology through a standards organisation or set up an alliance or SIG or a forum around their own technology and try to build an ecosystem. We see the success of WiFi, Bluetooth and cellular and these are done by the industries getting together and pooling their resources and IPR, producing standards and an ecosystem of suppliers and customers meaning we can build all these wonderful applications rather than fighting on technology.  


AG: I’m not sure a one-size fits all standard will work - it needs multiple standards…

WF: I absolutely agree it’s multidimensional. We need Bluetooth, WiFi, ZigBee and a whole set of low-power, wide-area technologies but we don’t need 10 flavours of each one. There has to be some consolidation.


MV: So one issue is that standards become co-opted by powerful interests…

DB: I think Thread Group is a great example: if you compare that to Bluetooth Smart and mesh networking, those are almost competitive standards. Does the industry need both? It will be confusing to the end user who doesn’t care about what standard it is; he cares about functionality.

Amit: There’s also the industry-specific implementations. We need verticals such as automotive or city infrastructure to figure out what is right for them and to make sure these verticals have picked the right things so all the manufacturers have interoperable products. We need verticals to come together so we have low-level interoperability for data exchange, security and connectivity.


VH: Is there scope for one umbrella entity sitting above creating a gateway and common protocol?

WF: The Wireless IoT Forum starts from what you’re trying to achieve with your application and breaks that down by vertical into what the technology needs to do to support that. It’s a reference architecture that says you can use any one of these standards and this is what use cases they are appropriate for. A vertical can say, ‘I know what my options are’ and a supplier can know what they need to develop.

DB: I can see each vertical market ending up settling on a standard – it’s similar to what Bluetooth and WiFi did. I remember when I first stepped into the Bluetooth space and there were all these articles that said ‘Bluetooth is dead, no way can it compete against WiFi’. Look at Bluetooth now. You’re not streaming WiFi over Bluetooth even though there are protocols that allow you to do that. So I see vertical markets picking standards that make most sense to them.


AG: Certain applications are going to have high priority for standards, such as a building automation system...

Amit: In the industrial space there’s an effort to do a reference architecture to have a better chance of interoperability. The Industrial Internet Consortium is an effort in that direction. The challenge is how fast they can come to fruition. That’s the interim challenge. I hope it doesn’t take 10 years.


AG: How influential will handset technologies be in controlling the IoT?

WG: Very important because half the ecosystem is already there. Bluetooth LE is a great example: once that became natively supported in all the major phone operating systems you saw a great surge in applications with LE sensors.

DB: The challenge is people will be ‘apped out’. I don’t want an app for my garage door, look, TV, thermostat…  It will take me 20 minutes to find the app on my phone and I might as well get up and change it automatically.


AG: Who will take on that challenge and bring those apps together to make it more straightforward?

DB: Google and Apple are the key thought leaders. I’m looking to both of them to figure out how this works.


VH: What about privacy and security?  Is security the Nemesis of the IoT?

DB: I think privacy is an issue and a challenge but, for security, wireless standards have done a good job of making them more secure. Privacy though? I don’t know how the industry is going to address that yet.

JL: In some instances in M2M and IoT security has been a bit of an afterthought. In banking, security is before they even put the app together. In some businesses they think about getting the product out on the market and then developing it and only think about security when something has happened.

Amit: Security needs to be thought through end to end from communication protocol, how the data is stored or even the code that is on the pings. We’re always looking at how you ensure the code is secure from the beginning and through the life of the product. How do you make sure that sensor didn’t have malware when it entered the supply chain? There’s a good dialogue and everyone is becoming aware of this. But there’s confusion over what you can do at hardware, software, Bluetooth levels, so there’s need for education on how those layers work together.

WF: We can learn from history. If we look at cellular development, when analogue came out you could put two receivers together and listen to any call. When GSM launched it was very hackable and took too many years to develop the security needed. Z-Wave is very hackable so someone can open your door remotely - although it’s probably quicker to throw a brick through the window. Security has to be dead centre in our thoughts. At the moment many of the systems are very vulnerable. Within enterprise we learned our lesson from WiFi which rolled out quite widely with very little security on and suddenly stopped. Now the IT guys know what they’re putting in.


MV: Will there be a big aftermarket for IoT-generated data?

DB: In the wearable space your Fitbit or Jawbone UP are really only $8 pedometers with a WiFi chip on them so will they become commoditised? Yes. But these companies have gone on the record to say it’s all about the data so I do think there’ll be a market for it. There are a lot of companies investing in commoditised markets just to get the data.

Amit: A product owner won’t be the top data analyst. Naturally there will be a market for companies who have an interest in data science and there’ll be approaches where you can separate out and anonymise the data. Jawbone was used to map the effects of the Napa earthquake. That may be of use to somebody else who can figure out how disaster recovery can work so decoupling data from product will be important.

JL: I’d be concerned about what this will be used for. If somebody is going to use that aftermarket data to bombard me with spam I wouldn’t be too happy - and it happens.


AG: Effective use of IoT data is about how I can use that data to improve my business processes and make them more efficient. Are companies there yet?

Amit: This is a multi-decade mega-trend so people will get better at what they do with this data. There are good use cases with things like parking management systems or city trash management issues. In the city of Boston they went from trash being picked up once a day to twice a week depending on the status of that trash can, using M2M connectivity.


VH: What other great innovations have you seen?

JL: I prefer the altruistic type of products and one that caught my eye was the GPS shoe. You get watches and pendants that can track people’s movements but an elderly person might forget them. But a shoe if you go out in bare feet you feel that right away, and this automatically tells people when a person is wandering away.

DB: In American sports, iBeacons and sensors are giving attendees a great experience. 

WF: Street light control. There are way over a million IoT street lights in the UK. If you use LED you get a 40 per cent reduction in power saving and automated control is another 40 per cent saving.


VH: Who will drive the IoT?

JL: I think the innovators, possibly even non-technical people who have an idea and the technology just has to be fit for the purpose.

DB: There’s this big thought that there’ll be this great use case that pops up. I don’t think it’s going to come but ideas from startups and the garage will continue to drive this over the next 10 years. The big players are doing everything they can to lower the barrier to entry. It will be small ideas that don’t catch a lot of press.

AG: Network operators will have quite an important part to play, both mobile and fixed too. Mobile has already done a lot in M2M and that footprint and knowledge will be used to spread into all these new IoT apps. Service providers and system integrators will also have a big part to play in how businesses can utilise these ideas.

WF: As with the mobile internet, service providers had their opportunity to make it work and it didn’t happen. Google and Apple came and sat on top and it wasn’t until the small guys came along that it really became interesting and the Apples and Googles were essential in making that happen.

Amit: Companies like Micron are technology enablers but the real innovation will come from the business model to increase productivity or make more dollars.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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