IoT Coming Into Focus

Much of the press from last week’s Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona focused on the mobile device announcements—the traditional stars of that show—but there was an underlying theme that was actually a much bigger and more important story: the palpable evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT).

From telecom companies like AT&T and T-Mobile, to network equipment makers like Cisco and Huawei, to component makers like Qualcomm and Intel, everybody was focused on the IoT opportunity. After a decade-long run highlighting the voice and data improvements their networks could provide, the major telcos, for example, were clearly looking beyond smartphones to applications like connected cars, factory automation, and smart cities.

Similarly, hardware companies were as eager to talk about how their technologies are deployed in industrial applications as they were to show off their slick, consumer devices.

Just prior to the show, there was a major breakthrough on the IoT connectivity and standards front, as the OIC group, led by Intel, announced they were being joined by Qualcomm and other members of the AllJoyn group and they were forming a new organization called the Open Connectivity Forum (OCF). Mind-numbing acronym shuffles aside, this is actually a very important development that removes a critical barrier and should lead to faster advancements in connectivity across a wide range of devices, both at home and in businesses.

Of course, it’s still the early stages for IoT, so there was a lot more blustering in Barcelona about a few small examples than widespread real-world deployments, but the change in the air was clear.

One of the things that’s fascinating about IoT is that it brings together so many key technology trends into a unified whole. From 5G networks to sensor-based edge devices to multifaceted computing demands to big data-driven analytics software, it’s the biggest mixing pot of technologies that we’ve seen in some time. Put another way, there’s something nearly every technology-related company can find in the IoT world and still a lot waiting to be determined.[pullquote]From 5G networks to sensor-based edge devices to multifaceted computing demands to big data-driven analytics software, IoT is the biggest mixing pot of technologies that we’ve seen in some time.” [/pullquote]

In fact, this is part of both the beauty and frustration of IoT—it’s too big and too all-encompassing to be controlled by one entity or even sub-segment of the overall tech industry. At the same time, it’s too big to be moved forward in any kind of consistent, rational way. Instead, it appears to be moving along in fits and starts in multiple different directions simultaneously, not unlike a beach ball being buffeted wildly across a sandy beach when a storm front moves in.

One of the many challenges is each company trying to drive developments in IoT has an agenda or angle and many of these angles are far from complementary. Even the end goal for customers is quite varied—is it driving down costs, improving processes, or generating revenue?

Despite these questions, it’s clear there are some intriguing new options coming into play and the promise of many more to come. Just today for example, United Healthcare announced a new wearable device—developed in partnership with Qualcomm Digital Life—which medium-sized businesses (100-300 employees) can offer to their employees to reduce their health insurance premiums. Essentially, by following an activity schedule that’s tracked by the wearable, you can earn money towards your premiums—much like Progressive Insurance offers for automotive customers who put an OBD2 dongle in their car to monitor how safely they drive.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have innovative startups like Terbine, who just debuted their online marketplace for sensor-driven data. The idea is companies looking to generate revenue from their IoT deployments can share their data to Terbine’s database. Companies wanting to leverage data from various sources can purchase that data and mash together various combinations to get the data set they need or make comparisons across best-of-class standards to see how they compare. It’s a complex but fascinating idea that shows the kinds of innovations going on in IoT business models.

Moving forward, I expect we’ll see a great deal more interesting combinations of existing technologies put together in creative ways to drive new applications in IoT. To be clear, there are still enormous technical, logistical, political and business-related challenges to overcome. Nevertheless, the once foggy picture of where IoT is going and what it really means is finally starting to come into focus.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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