IOT: Islands of Isolated Things?

Bob O'Donnell / March 18th, 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?

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.”

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.

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.
  • Vasu

    Completely agree. I see many startups/companies creating frameworks to build sw for iot products. Each framework has its own set of interfaces and protocols.

    I’m baffled by the iot growth numbers quoted by research firms when the fundamental problem of an iot device is not solved yet.

    The reason internet became hugely successful is because of common standards(http, HTML language). Same holds for mobile OS.

  • Brian M. Monroe

    I do not understand why The Internet Of Things devices can not all speak IPv6 and/or Bluetooth LE? As for the application layer, I assume that still needs to be sorted out but because we still do not know what these devices will do and what sort of sharing of data we want them to do and where we want to share that data I think it makes sense to wait until the market matures before we define standards for data interchange. Will the devices all talk to each other in a mesh or will they need to talk to a smartphone or other base device? Or are they going to be pushing data to a data center online? The thing is that I do not see it being a one size fits all thing. What is important is that the devices are built and we can then figure it out.

    • Bob O’Donnell

      Basic physical connectivity can be addressed with Bluetooth LE and, in some cases, WiFi, but it’s the framework for communications that has to be addressed. I certainly agree that a one size fits all approach cannot work (and mentioned that in the post when I talked about multiple standards), but there needs to be much more effort made on at least trying to lay out some basic standards. Again, I find it both frustrating and enlightening that there is so much difficulty in getting products we all use everyday (like PCs, tablets and smartphones all running different OS’s) to share data seamlessly. If we extend it into the home, the challenges of putting together a fully connected home are still monumental for most people, so I’m very concerned about whether or not this whole IOT opportunity can really move forward in a serious way–hence the column.

      • Space Gorilla

        I would guess Apple will expand in this direction, and being vertically integrated gives them an advantage. The iPhone will become a hub for a kind of Network of Apple Things. That makes the goal of a fully connected home, car, office a bit more realistic, since Apple controls the stack.

        • Bob O’Donnell

          Yes, I think they may as well, but given that very few homes are all Apple (or all any single OS), that’s a big part of the problem.

          • Space Gorilla

            There’s enough homes with iOS devices, no need to worry about the numbers. Apple will happily serve the inevitable one billion users it is marching towards. The fact that Apple is focused on one segment of the market helps them here as well, they don’t need to provide solutions that work for the whole market, just the segment they serve. And since the hub will be built around the iPhone/iOS, I see a lot of fairly cheap sensor-type accessories (plus Apple TV) doing a pretty good job of creating the Network of Apple Things.

            So, we’ve got a few things working in Apple’s favor:

            1. They control the stack
            2. They already have the hub/engine (iOS)
            3. They’re almost certainly working on sensor accessories
            4. They don’t need to serve the entire market
            5. The segment Apple serves has a good deal of disposal income and will spend it to make jobs-to-be-done easier

            Apple will make small but steady moves into this space, I’m fairly sure of that. I’m also fairly certain Apple will be a minority player, as they are in most markets they operate in. And their success in this area will confound the pundits. How can this be? Market share! Open! Etc!

          • Bob O’Donnell

            Good points, but I will beg to differ on a few. First, not sure Apple will be making very many sensor accessories…yes, the iWatch, but to really get things going in the home, we would need a lot more than that and Apple has never shown willingness to make more than a small handful of products in any given category. Second, even in most Apple-dominated homes, they are not 100% completely Apple…the percentage who have that is a tiny subsegment even of the Apple crowd and that’s where the challenge lies. Moving forward, I think we’ll see Apple offer services that extend beyond their own platforms–they already have with iTunes and iCloud, for example–and that’s where they can become a larger player.

          • Space Gorilla

            A household won’t need to be 100 percent Apple (a single iPhone can get you started), and I’m not talking about full home automation either. You’ll be able to do lots of interesting things within your ‘mobile hub’. There’s a couple recent articles that touch on what I’m blathering about. ‘Digital Hub 2.0’ on Stratechery and more recently ‘Cards, code and wearables’ by Benedict Evans.

          • Bob O’Donnell

            Fair enough. Yes, I’ve seen some of those and have written on similar topics here on Techpinions in the recent past….

      • S.D.P.

        It’s the same problem that always happens whenever a standard needs to be set up. Everybody should get together, be sensible, and make a mutual agreement. But instead, each manufacturer wants to have *their* standard be the one everyone else uses – and they’re certain they’re so dominant that they’ll *force* the market to go their way. I think it’s amazing stupidity, but it’s what usually happens when the market really needs a standard.

        You say you’re very concerned about the opportunity. You should be.

        • Bob O’Donnell

          Well said…

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