By now you’ve no doubt heard all, or perhaps too much, about the Internet of Things, or the IoT for short. The ability to connect sensors and devices to one another via the cloud without human intervention is a neat idea, and I’m sure it will pave the way for the inevitable fall of our society to new robot overlords. The state of the world being what it is, this might not be so bad.
Even so, I’ve been hesitant to delve too deeply into the IoT as a topic of exploration until recently. Too many people name-check it into conversations where it doesn’t seem to belong—mostly vendors who want to be heard talking about the shiny new thing—and that always makes me suspicious.
The good news is that companies seeking to adopt IoT technology appear to be doing it for the right reasons. A recent Ovum survey revealed that the top three drivers of IoT adoption were improving customer engagement and experiences, improving operational efficiency, and strategic decision making based on actionable insights. That third one reads like corporate double-talk, but it’s legit; boiled down, it’s just another way of talking about Big Data, which the IoT can deliver via linked sensors and devices.
If the IoT takes off the way people want it to, possibilities abound for micro-targeted services, more accurate data collection in a plethora of applications, complex workflows triggered without people, better device reliability through failure prevention, you name it. Creative designers can do some sci-fi stuff with machine-to-machine communication.
But there are downsides to an IoT world. First off, businesses face a number of adoption hurdles that must be overcome before any of this is worth it. The biggest one is privacy and security. We’ve seen that the IoT is hackable—the mass Internet outages of October 2016 were staged from mobile and IoT devices. Privacy is an issue when you’re carrying around surveillance equipment you can’t see or control. We’ve thought about how much of ourselves we give away with selfies, check-ins, and location-based services, but those are mostly conscious choices. The IoT is supposed to be unobtrusive, so you could forget what you’re broadcasting. It’s the potential dark side—the id, if you will—of the IoT. Don’t be an id-IoT.
The second-biggest hurdle is infrastructure—as in, we simply don’t have it yet. Rollouts of IoT services might stall because not enough devices are using them; devices might not catch on because there’s not enough for them to do. It’s the classic problem with any technology that isn’t self-contained. Then again, TV and the Internet caught on pretty fast, so maybe this isn’t a big deal.
But what about bandwidth? If predictions hold, 20 billion to 30 billion IoT devices will be connected by 2020. Each one uses some amount of network capacity. Even if each amount is tiny, 20 billion is an awful lot of anything, tiny or not. And they’re always on and communicating, even if only to say, “Nothing happening here.” You think data traffic is bad now? Wait.
Here’s a hidden problem with the IoT: More people have heard of it now, but not enough understand it yet. It’s easy to provide a definition to the curious, but then they follow up and ask, “Yes, but what is it? What does it do?” Those answers aren’t as easy.
Most of what is being labeled as the IoT is really just the next generation of home automation, something that’s been around in various forms for decades. It’s not a big deal to control your lights and music from your phone. Using a tablet as a remote control is boring. Show me a system that adjusts the lights and music intelligently when you walk into a room, based on time of day, preset preferences, what you were doing last—that’s a bit more impressive. It still amounts to fancy ways of using consumer electronics, but it’s something.
I look forward to a future where the Internet of Things is itself a thing. Time marches on, technology can make our lives better, and so on. But the future will get here on its own schedule, and there will be holes in this net for a long time to come.
Marshall Lager is a senior analyst at Ovum, covering customer engagement. He hasn’t figured out a new way to be clever at the end of articles yet. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org or www.twitter.com/Lager.