Whilst at a recent technology event in London I had a strange experience.
Having been at a large tech event to look at the latest and greatest ideas and solutions I decided on a whim to pop into the industrial cleaning event next door for a change of pace. I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised: one of my interests (and increasingly that of my clients) is around IoT and how it can bring real business benefits.
Compared to the tech event, the cleaning event had more real-world implementations of IoT ranging from tracking and controlling cleaning robots to managing maintenance staff, customer satisfaction through to predicting refill requirements in office lavatories (it was a cleaning event after all). This was in strange contrast to the actual Tech event next door which had lots of “platforms”, “integration frameworks” and handwaving. Back at the office this got me thinking and researching. My results would suggest, to paraphrase renowned Oxford academic Nick Bostrom, “Once IoT becomes useful enough and common enough it stops being IoT.” (The quote was originally used about AI).
For example, did you know that cattle and dairy are massive users of IoT? Go and google “IoT Cows” and come back when you’ve marvelled at the numerous solutions out there to track your bovine friends’ locations, health, eating and breeding habits. These aren’t just crackpot Indigogo solutions either, they are referred to by several major ISPs as “case studies in connectivity challenges” and are big business in the agricultural arena. But, as Bostrom implies these are “Cattle Solutions” not “IoT Solutions”. That is because these solve a business problem – not a technological one. Like other buzz words, it’s not about “sexy tech” it’s about what it can do for your business. What does having lots of little sensors deployed in (currently) unusual locations do to your bottom line?
The lack of standardisation is still an ongoing problem and is reflected in Gartner’s update on IoT, sliding it down the hype-cycle towards the trough of disillusionment. For example, a solution for communicating with sensors on cows will not be able to work smoothly with a power monitoring solution in the farm buildings. These are both business solutions and both are “IoT” providing value to the same company, but which simply can’t interact out of the box even if there would be potential value in them doing so. Integrating these two solutions is an extra level of complexity which many companies either overlook or are put off by.
Why is IoT Important?
In my opinion there are three things which make me think that IoT will come through to the mainstream faster than expected.
Firstly, the increasing business cases for IoT based solutions. This is an area that a lot of the tech world struggles with on a regular basis. This is likely a result of the fact that in the tech world we are used to monitoring and measuring everything anyway. Consequently we struggle with the concept of things without sensors or we get stuck in tech porn and don’t equate it back to the business case.
At Intergence I’m regularly having to think about how to convert a business’ vision into technical reality. IoT is a conceptual tool I’m increasingly considering as a part of a larger picture. But it’s never a consideration on its own. What monies are being saved through efficiencies? What better understanding of your customers do you get through the extra tracking? The sooner people get back to thinking about the problems/solutions rather than tech the better.
Secondly, the connectivity and “distributed” nature of solutions. When deploying IOT the data has to be sent for analysis via a network of some sort. Sensors often use RF to communicate to their gateway but the gateway then has options. WiFi is always an obvious choice but introduces security and data concerns and hence companies will often elect to keep the data off their corporate WiFi. More and more solutions are therefore designed to work alongside WiFi using specific protocols for low data communication such as old school GPRS, or up and coming technologies and protocols such as LoRa and SigFox.
These new communication channels can even create ad hoc networks which allow devices to piggyback off each other until they can reach a suitable gateway. Clearly this can be very useful for remote areas such as forests or pastures or even connecting up a whole city. For example, in the case of the CityVerve project in Manchester they are turning the whole city “smart” – from smart lighting to “community wellness” and talkative bus stops that’s a lot of interconnected devices spread over a large footprint! I believe this illustrates that most, if not all, of the supporting structures are in place for IoT. All that remains is a few more “real” use cases to swing public opinion.
Thirdly, the innovation. As cows and cleaning demonstrate, you could already be getting advantages from IoT and just not knowing it. I believe that for every headlined IoT stupidity (Salt shakers, Juice squeezers and Egg Boxes to name a few) there are solid products solving genuine problems which don’t have to rely on using a buzzword as their main selling point. People are finding fascinating new ways to leverage the features of IoT into more and more environments.
I believe these three points highlight the quiet success of IoT and are where I am increasingly guiding our customers through. From a technology consultancy perspective IoT is just an extension to what we already do – another tool for the kit bag. IoT gets a lot of bad press but once you move away from the buzz and the silly gimmicks and find the clever commercial implementations, the power and possibilities really become apparent. Food for thought the next time you are washing your hands at work.
So to those out there who can see past the hype and buzz to find the opportunities in traditional businesses and blend it with innovative tech – we salute you. Long may you wallow in the trough of success.