The Internet of Things (IoT) is shaping up to be one of the biggest forces in the evolution of the Internet.
Although definitions of the IoT vary from person to person, soon we are told, virtually everything will communicate with everything else — devices, packages, appliances, tools, even garments. An alternate name for IoT, after all, is the Internet of Everything.
Taken at face value, this portends radical changes in how you live and do business.
From the rise of the Internet in the 1980s, to the Dot Com Bubble of the 1990s, and more recently the rise of e-commerce and social media, organizations of every size in both public and private sectors have been confronted with the mandate: “get on board or miss the train.” The history of all of these periods is littered with the carnage of those who paid the price of jumping too soon or too late.
While the rise of the IoT shares many characteristics with these earlier periods, it is arguably more sweeping, carrying with it a virtually unlimited definition of automation targets. Anything you make, sell or use can be defined as part of the IoT … and included in what you will be told to automate.
You may soon (if not already) be facing questions of if, when, how and how much should we make the IoT part of our world. And what should you expect from the effort? A range of vendors hungry for new business will be pushing these questions, and you must be ready with well-thought-out answers to guide your actions.
Here are a few considerations to include in the decision making:
Every time a new wrinkle in technology comes along, it becomes a commodity that one absolutely must have. This tendency isn’t confined to technology — the commoditization of planning in the 1960s and 70s, for example, cost companies millions — but where technology is involved, the problems are often larger and the remedies more expensive.
With the IoT’s massive scope, the commoditization bias will push every firm toward making all of their products and services interactive, on the assumption that if things can talk to one another, we will be automatically more successful.
This isn’t true. And while there is value in an appropriate level of interactivity, the “whole hog” approach that commoditization would have us take is nearly always overkill.
A more effective and less dangerous way of looking at IoT is the “find a need and fill it” approach. Carefully — and thoroughly — identify ways in which increased interactivity can increase success within your product line and constituency, and move to achieve them in a measured and rational way. You may end up adopting parts of the IoT, but you’ll do so only if and to the extent it makes sense for you and your customers.
Putting the Solution Before the Problem
Technology advances are intended to be solutions to problems or questions that have previously been difficult or insoluble. That, however, doesn’t fit the industry model of “buy the solutions now, worry about the problems later.”
Vendors love to show off the whiz-bang things their new systems can do, often trotting out canned problems made for their tools to solve. A major vendor's demonstration can be powerful and persuasive, often moving the prospect to buy new systems assuming that, as the vendor claims, the problems will make themselves evident. Too often this is a hollow claim.
Expect to see this push writ large with IoT.
Using Scholarly - But Not Objective - Research Findings
Firms often support their technology decision making with research reports from industry and academia luminaries.
While this can be useful, it must be approached with a healthy degree of skepticism given the degree to which many major research organizations quietly profit from their relationships with vendors. Some literally slant their research toward a particular vendor approach while many more, perhaps without conscious intent, find themselves looking at new technology successes but ignoring the failures.
When you consider whether and how much of the IoT to embrace, remember that whatever it does “for” you, it will likely do a number of things “to” you that you won't see coming.
For example, the IoT will demand that you collect and process data in amounts that can be orders of magnitude greater than what you are prepared for. Lacking the facilities to store, manage and analyze it, you could find yourself drowning in data you can’t do anything with.
Along with this really big data, you will need the expertise to analyze it for the answers you seek and to manage it in your transaction stream. Whether you hire or contract for it, this kind of talent won’t be cheap, but scrimp on it and you may get no value at all.
Timing is Everything
Every new technology advance comes with a level of urgency: if you don’t get aboard, you are told, you risk being left behind. History often suggests otherwise.
Most major technological advances take considerable time to fully integrate into the culture. So while the vendor community will urge you to embrace the full range of IoT resources — and products — you may find it more useful to move in stages over a period of years. Buy too much too soon and you could face major costs with little reward, not to mention finding yourself among those early adopters who end up replacing their early versions of technology as things mature.
Security and Standardization
Then there’s the oft neglected subject of how secure all these new technological tools will be, and equally important, how well they will interoperate as the IoT matures and reaches a workable level of standardization.
Security should go almost without saying, but unfortunately that is not the case with the IoT. Vendors usually don’t focus their efforts on security to the extent they should: more security adds complexity to products and reduces convenience for users. Vendors nearly always come down on the side of convenience.
But very real consequences can result if you don’t investigate prospective vendors’ approaches to keeping your environment and users safe. While effective security tools and techniques have been available up till now, the history of technology adoption isn’t all that bright as firms and government agencies alike find themselves penetrated, often with serious consequences.
Standardization is seldom a major topic of conversation in the early days of any new technology. The standardization process tends to be cumbersome, slow and often adversarial, with effective standards growing from experience rather than leading it. Often, standardization takes parallel paths driven by groups with competing interests, each hoping to own the yellow brick road to technology leadership … and market hegemony.
As you consider how and what to embrace in the IoT world, you can’t know for sure how your chosen vendors will adhere to standards as they materialize, but you can look at their record with standardization in the past.
How well do their products adhere to existing standards; how often and to what extent — as we have seen with both IBM and Microsoft — have they gone off on their own at variance to the path of standardization; how prominent is standards adherence in their marketing, sales and technical literature; and finally, how active are they in the standards bodies working in their technology areas?
There’s little doubt that at least portions of the IoT will become part of your future, technologically, financially and culturally. The trick will be to embrace them only when and to the extent that it makes sense for you, and the vendor hype won’t help you much in that endeavor.