Is 2015 the year in which the much discussed Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming mainstream? I was prompted to muse on this question by watching a friend remotely check and then reset the temperature of his home via their smartphone from our restaurant table. Also that same evening saw me extolling the benefits of my health wearable device and demonstrating how to review my statistics via an app on my smartphone. This is certainly different from the initial smart sensors on goods and within warehouses that help track stock levels and triggered replenishment orders. My first encounter with IoT was in the smart meter space in the energy sector. This is where meters enhanced with sensors are deployed to enable the providers to remotely monitor energy usage real-time and use that feedback to optimise their delivery model.
Indeed defining the term IoT can be problematic. I like this definition from a McKinsey article, that it is “the networking of physical objects through the use of embedded sensors, actuators, and other devices that can collect or transmit information about the objects. The data amassed from these devices can then be analysed to optimize products, services, and operations”. In 2011 when IoT first hit my radar I remember many articles from analysts predicting that by 2020 the market for connected devices would have reached somewhere between 50 billion and 100 billion units. Generally analysts today seem to be talking about a reduced but still material 20 billion or 30 billion units by that date.
To enable that scale to be reached we need to look beyond the “Things” and indeed even the connectivity aspect. Ultimately the old mantra of “it is all about the data” is at the heart of the key ingredients required. It is not just about getting the data to a store in the cloud. It is about doing so in a way that reflects the information privacy and security dimension within a framework of enabling technology standards. I don’t think we will realise the promise if we end up with an IoT that is more the “Internet of Proprietary Things”.
I picked up on the proprietary angle in an article by Matt Honan in the magazine Wired: “Apple is building a world in which there is a computer in your every interaction, waking and sleeping. A computer in your pocket. A computer on your body. A computer paying for all your purchases. A computer opening your hotel room door. A computer monitoring your movements as you walk through the mall. A computer watching you sleep. A computer controlling the devices in your home. A computer that tells you where you parked. A computer taking your pulse, telling you how many steps you took, how high you climbed and how many calories you burned – and sharing it all with your friends…. The ecosystem may be lush, but it will be, by design, limited. Call it the Internet of Proprietary Things.”
Many see a darker side to the IoT vision. They see a world where you are constantly tracked, monitored and the data about you monetised without your permission on a massive scale. Indeed some go as far as seeing the IoT as enabling a far more effective and efficient surveillance by the state, yet with the added twist that we seem to be volunteering to have it.
The threat seen is that we end up being monitoring by every device in our lives from our cars, to our household white goods, to a massive range of smartphone or wearable type apps and to the more understood spend trail we leave with credit and debit cards. This set of data points will then be correlated, analysed and without the relevant protections on privacy sold on to businesses without you being explicitly aware and agreeing.
There are a number of articles around that counter this point by making a link from IoT in this regard to social media. I think the point they miss in doing so is that social media is for those that are suitably wary about presenting a curated view of yourself. As the world becomes ever more digitized and people tracked by a growing myriad of devices it will almost certainly leave fewer and fewer opportunities to decide not to participate. It’s one thing to curate the view of yourself that is broadcast on social media. It would seem to me to be quite another to see how much curated content will exist in the world IoT might create. I think it is vital that the IoT promise is achieved by having an appropriate model of regulation to ensure privacy remains an option.