Buzzwords of warning
The IT industry thrives on buzzwords. It’s the industry’s fashion catwalk, and there are a large number of examples where existing products have been re-named to include and associate with a new trend.
By far the biggest example in recent years is Cloud. In fact because the renaming was so rife, it generated its own buzzword: “Cloudwashing.” It would seem that any product or service that had a network connection was, in some way, a Cloud.
There is an ascendance path for terms that are developed in the IT industry. Some are developed in small enclaves and gain a local following before breaking into the big time; others are released on the big stage by established performers after many focus groups have provided opinion on whether an apostrophe should appear and in what position. Neither of these routes guarantee acceptance by the fickle masses within the IT industry, and only a very small subset of these terms make it beyond that to the boardroom and ultimately into open public conversation.
We see time and time again that the industry has difficulty managing the expectations for an idea, concept or buzzword against the reality, leading to criticisms such as “selling a dream,” “smoke and mirrors” and other, far worse phrases. However, it’s the pioneers of these technologies — those willing to believe they can make it happen and deliver on the promise — along with the customers that accept the risk of having their hopes dashed that allow us to truly make progress. So be warned, but be ready.
The Internet of Things or IoT
As buzzwords and concepts go, this one is huge, but also quite simple. Let’s break it down, working from back to the front. Things. “Thing” covers so much, objects and entities observable or not, basically the reason why the word “stuff” exists. Just think about the words we use in everyday language — anything, something, everything or nothing. That makes the potential number of objects pretty huge.
Now the Internet, which is a multitude of services built on a loosely coupled arrangement of end points, connected through a number of common transportation and navigation languages. So the Internet of Things, in practical terms, can be simplified to an exponential increase in the number of end points, along with more contextual analytic services to realize a higher resolution view of our digital world. The promise of IoT is far more elaborate than a couple of sentences, but the exciting part is that most of the potential is unwritten.
There is always a catch
In concept, it can be that simple, and in most cases it is best to think at the conceptual level. If you start considering the restrictions in detail, you may be discouraged from coming up with the best idea. The good thing about the restrictions in the IoT world is that they replicate the problems we have been solving routinely in engineering since the Dark Ages, namely scale and complexity, along with one that we humans continue to struggle with: trust.
As these devices, either physical or virtual, play a more prominent role in our daily lives, questions of consent and trust need be considered. We already have a level of acceptance that, in public, CCTV and surveillance are happening under “collective good” principles and receive implied consent through local law. But when the devices start, and do, bridge into what would previously have been considered private, what is the price paid by the individual versus the benefit received?
In general, we seem comfortable swapping a complete individual history and agreeing to continue to supply updates for a nominal benefit, and in many cases, even pay a subscription fee for the pleasure. As we move further into the world of IoT, it seems likely that the current bulk consent models will need to alter as people become more aware of the value of the information being provided. (When a diamond mining company buys a plot of land, you can be sure they are not looking for coal.)
How about Cloud Services and Big Data?
These are the foundation of IoT in nearly every form, due to the dynamic nature and volatility of the volumes of data along with the requirement to analyse and make decisions based on a massive catalog of information streams. Whether the stream is flight telemetry from the latest airliner or a moisture sensor installed in the Egyptian pyramids, they all contribute to the ever-expanding data universe and are candidates for analytics and machine learning.
Ecosystem not Electronics
One of the first examples, and something most people can relate to, is the idea of the smart fridge. I remember reading about it in the late 90s, and it seems to be the IoT example that comes up most often.
The potential and the reality are not so far apart here. The basic desire is that when you consume something from the fridge, it gets replenished from an automated online order.
The smart fridge has been a staple contender at the Consumer Electronic Show since at least 2004, yet how many have you seen in people’s kitchens? Not many. The lack of adoption is less to do with the technical capability of the device and more to do with integration in the wider ecosystem. And of course, there is a huge investment needed across the ecosystem to achieve the tipping-point: the point where what the consumer expects from the extra functionality meets their willingness to change their habits. The expectation here is that we, as consumers, don’t want to put our bacon in an RFID-tagged bag so the fridge can recognize it. We want the packaging and recognition tooling to advance to such an extent that our habits of usage today translate easily to any new device.
Most IoT devices will not take up the space of a fridge. In fact, it is expected that by far the majority of connected devices will be part of the invisible landscape, whether at work, around the home or in nature. Small sensors will quietly send data wirelessly to collectors across the globe.
For Businesses, IoT = Innovate or Terminate
If you look back at the buzzword-adoption diagram at the beginning of the post, you’ll see IoT is already in the top two boxes, so it’s happening. IMHO businesses must look at IoT as the next wave of globalization, but this time going wide AND deep.
Remember when you first saw the retina screen on an iPad versus the “old” model? The higher resolution, true colour representation in your hand? That is the view IoT offers of the digital landscape. And just like an iPad, you buy into IoT for the beautiful screen, and the investment you make funds many new sensors that come along for the ride – a self-fulfilling prophesy if ever there was one.
The analysis of data created by the multitude of sensors can lead to new precision markets, customer awareness in contexts previously inaccessible, detailed risk profiles, unseen correlation and so much more. It’s a pure and simple competitive advantage that many companies are making headway in.
Feedback is always welcome, so feel free to get in touch @glennaugustus
As a Technologist in CSC’s Global Infrastructure Services, Glenn Augustus helps clients use technology to realise effective IT through the development of CSC’s infrastructure services portfolio. He has held a variety of senior architecture and engineering positions within CSC before becoming Global Offering Manager for CSC’s Storage as a Service and most recently Chief Technologist for Compute. Glenn lives with his family in the United Kingdom.