IOT: Islands of Isolated Things?

on March 18, 2014

In addition to wearables, the other hot topic in tech these days is the Internet of Things, or IOT. The concept behind IOT is certainly an intriguing one—in the future, there will be tens of billions of devices (about 10x the current installed based of PCs, smartphones and tablets combined) all connected to the Internet and, at least to some degree, to each other. Most of these devices are expected to be relatively simple sensor-based gadgets or components that generate vast amounts of data that needs to be stored and analyzed in the cloud.

Of course, if you’re a company that sells networking equipment, connectivity solutions or storage, this is a particularly grand vision because it says, “Hey, don’t worry if the sales of traditional computing devices is slowing down, there’s an even bigger opportunity coming down the road.” Not surprisingly, companies like Cisco, Intel, Qualcomm and lots of others are very gung-ho on IOT and its potential.

To be fair, much of their enthusiasm is justified. We’ve already started to see a number of intriguing and cost-saving implementations of IOT technology being deployed today. For example in the transportation business, delivery trucks and tractor trailers are now loaded with sensors to deliver data over wide-area network connections and, post-analysis, can deliver important feedback to the drivers that help better plan their routes, saving gas, time and money. Similarly, some auto insurance companies are using devices installed in cars which spit out a stream of information on the customer’s driving habits including speed, location, etc., to help deliver lower-cost premiums to good drivers—or, at least those who fall within the prescribed rules they’ve set up to identify lower-risk drivers.

As compelling as these examples are, however, the problem is they (and others like them) are relatively modest-sized and essentially isolated implementations. Now, that’s not a problem for these specific vertical niches, but to reach the kinds of numbers being bandied about for IOT, it will literally take a million of these different deployments to be made and that just doesn’t seem feasible in the near-term future.

The real challenge is there isn’t a common language for all these different devices to speak. If the industry wants to reach the scale it believes is attainable (and, for the record, I believe the numbers are possible as well—just not sure of the time frame), it needs to figure out ways to get both more and larger deployments. Right now, it’s essentially like a Tower of Babel where you have lots of types of devices, each speaking their own language—both in terms of data types, definitions, and protocols used to send those messages. Heck, we can’t even get all the devices in our homes to talk to each other, despite decades of trying. So how are all of these other devices possibly going to communicate with one another?[pullquote]Right now, the Internet of Things (IOT) is essentially like a Tower of Babel where you have lots of different types of devices, each speaking their own language—both in terms of data types, definitions, and protocols used to send those messages.”[/pullquote]

While it’s unlikely all the specific needs for potential vertical industries can be determined by a single set of standards, there’s no question in my mind that to even start the process of reaching millions of new “things” (let alone billions), significant industry-wide standards efforts around communications protocols, data structures and more need to get started—and soon. We have seen a few interesting efforts—including the Qualcomm driven AllJoyn initiative—but we need to see other larger players either join this organization or drive the creation of alternative or preferably, complementary initiatives that can start to build the links necessary to fulfill the dream of IOT.

If not, the next several years could lead to nothing more than some interesting, but isolated islands of things that fall far short of the industry’s expectations.