There's one thing clear about the Internet of Things — and that is that it's very unclear what it will ultimately look like.
We know it will be something that connects billions of devices. But what devices? How will they be connected? And what will be the point in connecting them be?
What is also becoming clear is that one of the major forces that will shape the IoT is the way IT developers and vendors perceive it and how they plan to use it in the future. Microsoft recently added to its already substantial contribution on the issue by pointing to different reasons why businesses need an IoT strategy.
Stating the Obvious
It seems unnecessary to stress the importance of developing an IoT strategy, but sometimes these things just need to be said.
Think about cloud computing. It didn’t seem necessary to develop business strategies for that, but then we saw recently that small-to-medium sized companies (SMBs) are not only avoiding it, but 10 percent of them don’t even know what it is.
Big data and big data analytics are the same. Hype aside, it seems many enterprises are still not sure what big data is, how they use it or what it's good for.
In fact, it’s not just emerging technologies that are causing problems. It’s also what are now considered traditional technologies, like enterprise content management and document management.
Every year, in its State of the Industry report on the ECM market, AIIM consistently finds evidence to suggest that many organizations are having the same difficulty taming their information that they would a wild beast.
IoT In The Future
So recent attempts by vendors to work out strategies or even define the IoT should not be dismissed as mere marketing. Rather, they are genuine attempts to define the IoT.
Only this month, for example, Pew Research published a report summarizing what some of the leading web luminaries think about the IoT. The only thing they really agreed on was that there could be no agreement.
The result is that, for practical purposes, it is going to be up to the IT companies that end up building the IoT to define and shape it.
About a year ago, Sanjay Poonen, head of the mobile division at SAP, noted that the entire concept can be summarized as follows:
… M2M technology is primarily being used to collect vast amounts of machine and people-based data. The ‘Internet of Things’ concept goes one step further by not only integrating machines, people, ERP and CRM systems, and other information sources like social media, but also analyzing and making use of all the data. Soon, people will interact with devices that in turn interact with data to deliver personalized products and services directly to the consumer in real time…”
There are many other similar definitions from different people, but the basic principal is always the same — the IoT will connect millions, if not billions of devices.
At what point we can call the IoT a reality is difficult to say. Generally speaking, it will be up and running by 2020 and will consist of anything between 50 billion devices, according to SAP, or a monster that will be worth in the region of $20 trillion sometime in the undefined, hazy future, according to Cisco.
Microsoft and IoT
This has lead Microsoft’s Susan Hauser, corporate vice president at the Enterprise and Partner Group, draw up a list of things that businesses should be doing now while they are still on top of the situation.
For Microsoft, the IoT is going to be a slightly less impressive than the IoT envisaged by Cisco, but it will be impressive all the same.
Citing research from McKinsey Global Institute, Microsoft estimated that the IoT has the potential to create an economic impact of between $2.7 trillion to $6.2 trillion annually by 2025.
It points out that the roots of the IoT are already growing in the shape of the devices, sensors, cloud infrastructure and data and business intelligence tools organizations are already using. It suggests the IoT is not a single, growing entity but rather, something that corporate leaders can better understand by focusing on the areas that matter to them most and building from there.
Instead of thinking about the massive amount of data being produced, think about how one piece of data can provide value to your business, Microsoft suggested.
Microsoft is, needless to say, promoting itself as a company that can offer organizations an integrated approach to developing their IoT strategy. It is, in reality, in a position to provide everything from PCs to developer tools, backend systems and services and a far reaching partner ecosystem.
It is also promoting Windows, noting that once the line-of-business assets are in place, Windows will enable users to access the entire Microsoft network and data capabilities, and even develop new business opportunities would otherwise be out of reach.
All that said, the list of things that Hauser and Microsoft suggest organizations do is a pragmatic one. It doesn’t even necessarily involve Microsoft.
According o Hauser, the IoT will fundamentally change the way we do business as it surfaces greater efficiencies, drives deeper customer connections and introduces new business models and revenue streams. So here is what Microsoft suggests you do:
1. Start working on it now
The first thing to do is to recognize that you need a strategy and that many of your competitors are well ahead of you in this respect. If you are not one of the leaders here, you will be doomed to follow others, which is not a good business plan.
2. Evaluate IT assets
You need to look at your IT assets and build up those assets where they look like they are lacking. Add new devices, connect them to the cloud and enable them to talk to each other. However, this should only be done after you have devised your strategy and know exactly what it is you want to achieve.
3. Make small changes
Developing your IoT presence should begin with identifying one process, product line or location that matters most and then making small changes to it. In manufacturing, for example, connect robots to back-end systems — thus creating a production line with more uptime, for example. A few key improvements will make a big difference to devices and the data they produce.
4. Focus on efficiency
By connecting devices with systems, you can make significant times savings. If systems are correctly connected, data will flow seamlessly between devices via the cloud giving more people access to it for more efficient work.
5. Consider the customer experience
By connecting as many devices are you can, you can ingest more information quicker. Every piece of data should be helping you develop a better picture of your customers and enable you to visualize emerging patterns and predict future behaviors. With more connected devices and more data, you should also be considering what kind of analytics you are using.
6. Capitalize on business opportunities
The combination of devices and data should result in faster processes and better insights into your target markets. Hauser offers the example of combing GPS with automated kiosks and RFID-enabled check-in, which lets motorists create a car-sharing service in minutes.
7. Make it agile
If agility is defined as the ability to respond quickly to rapidly changing business environments, then IoT should be the ultimate agility enabler — if you have a system in place to organize and manage the new information that is entering your businesses. Without that data management, it ability to respond to the environment will be drastically reduced.
8. Scale up
According to Hauser, the IoT will be the ultimate scaling tool. Working with new partners, new technologies and new data will enable workforces to collaborate in ways they couldn’t before. The Internet of Things lets you scale from the smallest data point to global deployments.
9. Get the right devices
Devices can say a lot, but only if there is someone or something to hear it. From sensors to handheld scanners to surgical instruments, the devices in your business can create efficiency and insight, if you enable them to talk to each other, your employees and customers.
10. Embrace transformation
When you have a strategy in place to take advantage of the Internet of Things you need to find a vendor or vendors that can help make it a reality. While Microsoft says it can provide everything you need, it is probably better to start looking around now to find vendors that suit your projects and take a best-off-breed approach rather than putting all your eggs in one basket.