About 15 years ago, the technology world was abuzz with promises of a “smart refrigerator.”
More than just keeping your food cool, this refrigerator would email you when you were almost out of salsa or when your milk had expired. It would add these items to your digital shopping list, or maybe even place an automated order with the nearest grocer.
Alas, the Internet refrigerator — perhaps ahead of its time — never gained traction in the market. However, the ill-fated appliance was one of the earliest harbingers of what the future would bring in a world of connected “things."
The connected world extends to the business world as well, enabling efficiencies like never before.
Manufacturers use sensors to keep tabs on productivity and machine maintenance issues. Shipping companies, retailers and warehouses use sensors to track and analyze inventory data. Energy companies monitor oil well performance and safety factors. Utilities optimize electricity delivery based on data from the smart grid.
The list goes on and on. But we’re still only getting started. Take what’s happening today, and make it more ubiquitous, more inter-connected and much more automated, and you might just catch a glimpse of what’s over the horizon.
As Businessweek’s Neil Gross put it so well, “planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations.”
The possibilities are mind-boggling, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. For the IoT to flourish in the way futurists imagine — and not go the way of that first smart refrigerator — there are still real-world technological hurdles to overcome.
Building the Future IoT
While we’re already seeing impressive applications of IoT among consumers and businesses, these developments have largely been self-contained. That is, every industry has its own systems and technologies in play, communicating amongst themselves.
If the IoT is to mesh into a global nervous system where dissimilar devices can “talk to each other” and work across platforms, a number of prerequisites must be addressed in the IT ecosystem:
1. Next generation infrastructure
Perhaps the biggest mountain ahead of IoT is the need for a dramatically improved information backbone — broadband spectrum, fiber networks and data centers — to carry the gargantuan load of data the IoT will create. If you think “big data” is big now, it’s only a fraction of what a sophisticated IoT will drop on the shoulders of tomorrow’s infrastructure.
Credible estimates predict the demand for data processing will increase 30 to 40 times by 2025, as infinite numbers of machines and systems communicate with each other across borders and industries. Crunching all of that information will require rapid construction of new data centers with enormous storage capabilities and computing power.
Some of that computing capability will need to move closer to the edge of the network, as an extension of the cloud-based infrastructure, so customers will be able analyze data and make rapid decisions at the local level. Increasingly, they will enlist IT services providers to help them adapt to the heightened operational demands and derive business value from these new capabilities.
Finally, to manage the workload reliably and not completely overwhelm the electrical grid, the IoT infrastructure of tomorrow will need to be cleaner, more power-efficient and more resilient than ever before.
2. Collaboration among industry segments
At its core, the IoT is powered by a host of technology providers who all play in different sandboxes. There are manufacturers who make sensors and smart devices; software companies who write the programs; network and services companies who enable communication to occur; and data management companies who store and process the deluge of information being transmitted.
All of these entities will need to work together to create a seamless fabric of technology.
3. Evolving skill sets
As the IoT blossoms, the traditional roles of IT professionals will enter unprecedented territory. Technologists accustomed to laptops and servers could find themselves interacting with farm equipment and washing machines. And legions of analysts will have to learn to make meaningful use of the resulting data.
4. Airtight security
Data breaches are already a pressing problem in many industries. But as every aspect of our lives becomes digitized and electronically trackable, the challenge to keep mountains of data safe from prying eyes will grow exponentially. Personal privacy, industry secrets and critical infrastructure will be at risk as they are today, but on a much larger scale.
A (Potential) Collective Triumph
All things connected, all the time, all over the world. That’s ultimately where we’re headed. And as we work through the flaws and obstructions holding IoT back, the world is poised for a technological renaissance.
For consumers, IoT will continue to deliver richer and more personalized customer experiences, which might finally include that intelligent fridge, but also more important conveniences like automating your prescriptions and preventing car crashes. Perhaps even more impressive are the business and industrial implications of IoT that will benefit all of us indirectly, even if we’re blissfully unaware of them.
Every organization will have the power of improved decision-making as data analysis eliminates guesswork. Industries will achieve lower operating and maintenance costs through the ability to see and prevent problems before they happen. Smart devices of all descriptions will empower the workforce to hand off mundane tasks and engage in more strategic, creative and satisfying work. Entire cities could become safer, healthier, less congested and more energy-efficient.
All the while, the rapid product innovation ignited by IoT will set off a worldwide economic boom. It’s a vision that borders on utopian, but at least some of it is inevitable.
At the very least, we’ll no longer have to remember to buy OJ.