Making Sense of IoT

Trying to think about one of the hottest trends sweeping the tech industry—IoT, or the Internet of Things—has me a bit befuddled to be honest. On the one hand, I understand the conceptual potential of a world where everything is connected and where we’re able to glean a wealth of useful insights from the data pumped out by the devices that form part of this all-encompassing network.

On the other hand, the nearly overwhelming technical, security, and legal hassles of making all the connections work in this vision of an internet-on-steroids seem pretty difficult to overcome. Part of the problem is, in many ways, talking about the Internet of Things as a conceptual whole is a useless exercise. There’s no real Internet of Everything, or Internet of Things (why does the Internet need “things” anyway?), but instead a variety of specific applications that involve putting intelligence, sensors and connectivity into certain devices that can perform specific, useful functions.

Another problem is there’s a tendency to overanalyze and overcomplicate what IoT applications actually are or should be. At this point, I’d argue many people perceive IoT as being an extraordinarily complex combination of devices, services, business models, value equations, etc. In fact, the big IoT visions many vendors and analyst firms are touting seem dependent on creating this vague sense of something that, I’d argue, doesn’t necessarily amount to anything.[pullquote]The big IoT visions that many vendors and analyst firms are touting seem dependent on creating this vague sense of something that, I’d argue, doesn’t necessarily amount to anything.”[/pullquote]

In some cases, these visions are also based on false presumptions around the inherent value of data and connectivity. I believe we need to think about some of these key premises in a different way. Specifically:

  • Data does not equal information
  • Not all information is actually useful
  • Connectivity doesn’t inherently make something better

On their own, most of these statements are fairly obvious, yet it seems like many early efforts to create products that fit into the Internet of Things or Internet of Everything world seem to ignore at least one (if not all) of these precepts. How many different “smart objects” have we heard or read about lately that just make you scratch your head wondering what they’re really good for or who would actually use them?

Similarly, much of the vision around the opportunities for Internet of Things-type applications ignores these basic principles. To be clear, data, connectivity, sensors, and embedded intelligence can be incredibly valuable, and there are some significant business opportunities in the commercial and consumer markets to create products and services that leverage these capabilities. However, the fundamental driving principle that needs to be at the heart of these efforts is what I call “useful simplicity.” There needs to be a clear benefit to end users that helps them achieve something genuinely useful in a simple, convenient way.

Perhaps because that idea is so obvious, I often feel there are efforts made to obfuscate these basic principles and complicate ideas to make them sound more sophisticated. I guess the justification is this will provide a more complex business model and, therefore, higher value.

To me, both the challenge and opportunity behind IoT-type products and applications is crystal clear. Companies need to motivate potential users to purchase products or services because they offer a simple, clear, useful value. Unfortunately, in the often muddled world of IoT, that’s not always as easy as it sounds.

Published by

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.

126 thoughts on “Making Sense of IoT”

  1. I think IoT things have an image problem: every prospective customer 1- knows that Internet = malware and phishing (and early examples of car hacking, though only thing- not internet- related, reinforce/confirm that) and 2- already hates their non-Interneted “smart” things, whether their 18-buttons Microwave (I just counted) with the perma-off clock (I’m lazy and… over-clocked ?) or all of their 4 undecipherable remotes (my brother’s attempts at universal remotes have not fared very well either, there’s always 1 gizmo missing from the list).

    Combine malware and idiot savant things (let’s acronym this: IsT ? MIsT ?), the possibilities for rage and desolation seem endless. “Does it have dumb dials ?” is actually becoming a purchase criteria, and not just for me. “Can I internet it” hasn’t made its way into any conversation.

    The way forward certainly involves not “interneting things” (I’m hammering on that nonsensical phrase on purpose), but providing solutions to problems. I’m curious as to what I might want to do remotely though… For most things, a dumb timer suffices: feeding pets, watering plants (well even a timer is mostly overkill for those). Remote surveillance is not quite IoT because there was no T before the I…

    1. I’d think one should be able to scan the barcode on any prepared food item package (or someday just take a picture of any food item and have it identified, — Google/Amazon, this one’s for you!), and then have cooking instructions automatically sent to and programmed into the microwave (instructions probably received from the Internet via phone/tablet hub). Then one confirms by pressing one button.

        1. Sure – given that you did learn that instruction once upon a time, and given that the “18-buttons Microwave” easily lets you enter 10 minutes at 8.

          But a new food item that you’re trying for the first time? Or the same food but from a different brand? No more fumbling with finding and reading the instructions for the microwave on the bottom of the box. No more missing the big play in a sports event because you’re still in the kitchen.

          What is convenient for one is not for another. What is worth it for one is not for another. Over time, we find out what the market size really is.

          1. When it comes to obarthelemy, if Apple makes it, it is not convenient.

          2. That it’s not been done yet is actually intriguing, because I’m not sure IoT is even required: a QR-code type thing on the pizza box could encapsulate whatever info is required for the microwave to set a cooking course, whether a simple duration + power or a more refined curvy thing. A semantic (self aware ?) frozen pizza, no need for a database lookup neither of the pizza, nor of the oven.

            I’m guessing the value-add is small, and split between oven makers and pizza makers, so nobody’s got the drive to setup a standard.

          3. True, that is a simpler solution. The microwave needs a QR-code reader, and software to perform a standard translation into its time and power instructions.

      1. You are going to set up all this infrastructure just to get a microwave meal done right? This is what IoT talk gets wrong. There are certain tasks that are just better done by yourself the old fashioned way. Like cooking. (If you really want a great meal, you cook it yourself and you don’t follow a strict procedure because despite the apparent precision of recipe instructions, ingredients are all different and you have to adjust cooking temps and cooking times on the fly.)

        And if preparing a microwave meal is considerably more complicated than setting the time and pressing Go, then I’d say the manufacturer didn’t do its job right.

        1. On cooking, to each his/her own. The ubiquity of the microwave is a testament to how many want cooking to be simplified. Sadly, many microwave manufacturers, in trying to make the UI simpler, actually wind up making it more complicated and harder-to-use.

          But hey, maybe we just scrap the sensors in the Things, and simply tell Siri what food it is and what it is we want the Thing to do for us, and she takes care of it.

        2. “You are going to set up all this infrastructure just to…”
          Most importantly, the economy needs to grow (through consumerism), people should have jobs, and politicians want to get elected.

          Seriously, adding sensors and bluetooth/wifi to Things doesn’t cost very much. Most homes already pay for broadband, and the Internet and servers are already in place.

    2. Yes, these points all emphasize what I was trying to say. And for the record, in my first predictions for 2015 column (published December 30), I did predict that we would see the return of analog dials and controls….just sayin’…;>

      1. Agree, agree, agree! A million years of evolution has given rise to human brains that are more analog than digital, ordinal than cardinal. 50 years of digital revolution will not suddenly change all that.

  2. “On the other hand, the nearly overwhelming technical, security, and legal hassles of making all the connections work in this vision of an internet-on-steroids seem pretty difficult to overcome.”

    Agreed, which is why we’ll see an Apple Network of Things gain traction a lot sooner, and arguably that’s already happening. obarthelemy has already touched on exactly why a modular approach to this has a tough slog ahead. Privacy, security, and user experience are all improved by vertical integration.

    1. I do think application-specific solutions like what I also expect Apple to talk about will help, but unfortunately, Apple isn’t always very good at playing with others. As they widen their reach to a wider set of customers, they’re going to run into a lot more who will be unwilling to go “all Apple” and I think that’s where the problem for some of Apple’s HomeKit solutions will likely be. But, we’ll see….

      1. All Apple is the advantage. The market segment that chooses Apple actually wants this, we’re looking for curated, vertical solutions from a single vendor. The ‘techy segment’ really seems to have trouble understanding this. I’m choosing Apple because they’re closed, I’m not tolerating a closed system in order to get something shiny, I’ve considered my options and I want a closed solution. For me that is the solution that affords me more freedom and best meets my needs.

        Apple has no problem playing with the real world. Apple Pay is a great example, it’s a vertical “all Apple” solution, but it’s doing very well and ‘plugs in’ to the real world just fine.

      2. Yes, Apple’s own Things (devices) will be a problem for all those without an Apple computer (iPhone, Watch, iPad, Mac). But if the people didn’t buy the Apple computers, they won’t buy Apple Things. So just like Watch, make your choice now, and it’s not a problem in Apple’s eyes. Apple will surely be trumpeting the benefits of all-Apple devices (security, everything-works-together, only-the-best-quality, etc).

        As for third-party Things, those vendors will have to make a choice to include both Apple and non-Apple protocols/mechanisms in each Thing, or to make separate Things (Apple-only, non-Apple only). (This has already started to happen.) Apple’s base is now large enough that Apple doesn’t expect to be starved of Things for its computer owners.

          1. One can argue that the Mac base in the 1990’s was too small to support an flourishing ecosystem of software and hardware developers. But the iOS base of 500 million+, most of whom are willing to spend, kinda changes things, doesn’t it?

          2. I’ve said for years that Apple will level out around one billion users. Most people don’t care enough about what Apple offers, or care about other things, which is fine, but Apple is not for everyone. You need to get past your obsession with people making choices you don’t agree with. Apple is a better choice for me. Apple is a worse choice for you. And that’s it.

          3. The comment wasn’t about choice, it was about the “winning” you guys are obsessed with… 🙂

          4. You’re the only one obsessed with winning, or as you put it, countering the cheerleading, but I’m afraid that’s mostly in your head. You interpret anything positive said about Apple as cheerleading, because you view Apple as the wrong choice (for everyone). I don’t care what choice you make. Use what works best for you. And kindly piss off with your derision of my choice.

          5. Nosireebob! The only interest I have in this game is Apple not (exclusively) dumbing everything down.

          6. There you go again, deriding the choice you don’t agree with. Get over it. Apple is the better choice for a lot of people. Wait, no! you cry, Apple is dumb! Apple is bad! Don’t choose Apple! Pleeeeeeeaase! Noooooo!

          7. Many people think Android’s 2 billion will eventually cause Apple to “lose” (that’s the concept you mentioned above) because developers will leave. I don’t project that, but we’ll see what happens.

            I don’t care about winning or losing. I just want Apple’s curated ecosystem option to survive for those who want it, and to co-exist with whatever else is out there. There’s been more than enough innovation in Apple’s system for me to keep improving my life.

      1. Heh, sure, Apple devices don’t work well together at all… What’s the sarcasm tag again?

        1. Hmmm… I just transferred a call from my watch to my phone to my car seamlessly while simultaneously moving my browsing session from my MBP to my phone. Yeah…Apple doesn’t understand this networking stuff…

  3. There are those who do lots of talking and proclaiming of their big IoT visions. Then there are those who are in the trenches developing specific connected products that enable valued-jobs-to-be-done to be done more quickly, conveniently, smartly.

    With iPhone, Watch, HomeKit, iBeacons, and SecureID, Apple is proceeding one-step-at-a-time to create (and help partners create) specific Things that smartly exchange data to inform and automate actions, enabling iPhone/Watch owners to get much more value out of their devices. I think a lot lot more will be shown at WWDC in June. No big vision speeches, just the next set of useful devices and their normal, everyday use cases.

      1. Heh, that didn’t take long. The ego is a powerful beast. Just ‘Watch’ is fine in context. I did already note that, you must have missed it.

        1. You edict your own rules and agree with them, cool. Fact is, either things and people have a name and you respect it, or you don’t and take shortcuts. Then there’s the specific kind of people who agree with their shortcuts, but not others. My filter for people worth relating with is “applies to himself what he wants from others”. Just pointing out which side of that filter you fall on.

          1. Short versions of names are fine, as is the case with nicknames or shortened versions of longer names.

            In the case of the Apple Watch, simply ‘Watch’ is the short version. The name iWatch was used in the rumor stage, but now that we have an actual product name people use Apple Watch or Watch.

            I called you on your continued incorrect use of iWatch and you threw a fit. End of story. Feel free to correct yourself or continue on with iWatch. Your choice. I’m not going to reply on this topic again. You may have the last word.

          2. I simply pointed out your utterly hypocritical objecting to my using the original and shorter version of the iWatch’s name, while at the same time you used the not original and derogatory shorter version of mine. Showing you respect iStuff more than people, and are shamelessly two-faced.
            I’ll be glad to drop the subject to, until next time you come buzzing by with more ridiculous idiocy.
            PS/Edit: I also use GMap, GDrive et al.. not hearing from you on those ones…

      2. In the prose on Apple’s website, it almost always uses Apple Watch. But on Apple’s current home page and the Apple Watch landing page, in the tagline, it says “The Watch is here.” And finally, the tab label throughout the site for Apple Watch info, is simply “Watch”.

        1. Who cares what Apple says? My Citizen and Moto360 are both watches, not to be confused with the Apple Watch. It’s like BMW coming out with a model called “Car”. Who would take them seriously?

          1. Watch, not watch.

            Nonetheless, I’m sure Apple wants me to use Apple Watch. Hey, obarthelemy and Apple want the same thing! Did hell freeze over?

    1. “just the next set of useful devices and their normal, everyday use cases.”


  4. Most of the times it’s just easier for me to get up and flip the switch to shut the lights off. And I really don’t want a fridge that tells me it’s time to buy a new jar of jam. Because what if I bought one just to try it and decided that I won’t buy it ever again. Do I really have to explain to the fridge that I’m not planning to buy a replacement jar? Until IoT proponents can guarantee that setting up/training/programming/and maintaining(!!) an IoT device or system is going to be easier ***and less annoying*** than just doing the task manually, IoT will not be getting any traction at all.

    The enemy of technology is complexity, the dilemma is most people who create the technology love the challenge posed by complexity and they tend to fall into the trap of assuming that most people think the same way.

        1. Not the same in Apple’s world. In Apple’s world, I don’t think Things (like the Fridge) are expected to be smart; they are expected to be simple sensors that would be given just enough knowledge to collect the right data at the right time. The true smarts reside in the app on the iPhone/Watch/Mac/Cloud/etc, which is what Siri would interact with on the back-end.

          1. “. . . just enough knowledge to collect the right data at the right time”

            I think that innocuous sounding phrase is among the hardest judgements to get right. Especially if it’s to be applied to hundreds of millions of different users.

          2. The opportunity to creatively and deeply think through and build useful products is at hand. I hope those developers or vendors who get it mostly right will reap the revenue and profit from their hard work.

  5. Mr. O’Donnell, there is no shame in “not getting” the Internet of things. It is a giant looming problem in search of a much smaller existing problem, and it solves nothing of consequence. The IoT should be preemptively mocked into non-existence.

  6. My Internet of Things is more like a Network of Apple Connected Devices. I suspect that with the upcoming home devices (including the new Apple TV), it will be easier to see Apple’s model. Most devices won’t be on “the Internet.” They’ll be on local Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth LE using Bonjour, and they’ll be MFi (Made For iPhone) devices for the most part. The Apple Watch is just a warning salvo…”We can deliver millions of customers for your new gadget; it’s Apple first and everything else is an afterthought.” Yes, you can make it for Android, but only at lower price points and you’ll have to flesh out the missing pieces of their hacked together ecosystem just to get customers who don’t buy much stuff anyhow.

    Apple Watch + your device + HomeKit == easy sale

    Android + ??? + ??? SDK + lots of custom stuff == support nightmare and lots of engineering investment

  7. I suspect the best place for an IoT is in a car.
    As essentially a local area network – but with a strongly protected/firewalled external connection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *