IoT — nothing to be afraid of.
Introducing Internet of Things into your company’s operations.
There are typically two answers to “Have you heard about the Internet of Things?” question. One is the short, good, old: “Not really”, while the other is: “Yes, sounds complicated”. Regardless of which of these would be your reaction, the Internet of Things (often shortened as IoT) might sometimes seem like a closed book. The fact that you can control your lighting system through a smartphone app, get notified by your fridge, that you are running out of milk or discover how shoppers make their way around your retail outlet can sometimes resemble of magic.
However, IoT in not any kind of magic and it’s applications are potentially endless. This article will explain in plain English a technical concept of Internet of Things, discuss what is needed to effectively implement it and show the most popular technologies used. By the end of the article, you should be able to envisage the areas and benefits of use of IoT technology for your business.
We live in an era in which every digital consumer (a person using digital goods and services, like e-books, Netflix or buying things on Amazon) possesses, on average, more than 3.5 electronic devices.
In 2014 we actually passed a tipping point, at which mobile device usage worldwide outrun desktop and the trend continues. For example, in Africa people completely skipped the PC and laptop era and moved straight into mobile. It’s hardly possible to see a desktop computer in a sub-Saharan African home, while mobile devices and smartphones are everywhere. Consequently, internet usage and the number of devices connected to it raised enormously coining a term: “connected devices”, which is basically everything with an internet connection. In 2015 Gartner predicted, that in 2016 we will have 6.4 billion connected devices in the world with 5.5 million added every day. Others predicted even higher numbers (see below). By 2020 this number should rise to over 50 billion. Just stop at this number for a second.
Internet of (Every)Things
If the increasing numbers of devices and the pace at which it is happening is surprising, take a moment to think about the number of devices you have. A laptop, tablet and a smartphone are a must, for some also a smartwatch. If you’re a technology geek you probably have a few of each. Looking at it from this angle, the above numbers are not so surprising anymore. And how many other devices do you have that already are or could be connected to the internet?
This is essentially and in the simplest terms the Internet of Things: a collective name for all devices that can be or are connected to the internet. Connection to the internet means, that the device can receive and transmit information. So if something can be connected to the internet, then it can be remotely controlled and can control other devices connected to the internet as well. This way a network of such devices, an Internet of Things, is born.
In the recent years we are seeing more devices and appliances than ever that are internet-enabled (can be connected to the Internet), they are becoming “smart”. These include smart fridges, coffee machines, lighting systems, printers, door locks, store price checkers, barcode scanners, you name it. Almost any device that you touch or see is now smart. The Internet of Things is becoming the Internet of Everything (IoE).
IoT technologies are able to generate information and data on an unprecedented scale, measuring almost any aspect of businesses’ operations and our lives. This allows to react based on analysis of that data. By spotting patterns, trends or deviations, IT systems can be automated to trigger certain decisions. Body temperature rising? Notification about taking an aspirin. Inventory running low? Automated restocking order. More clients during particular hours? Modify employee schedule to have more staff then.
Omnipresence of smart devices creates a huge business opportunity. Interconnectedness and constant data gathering, an action-information-reaction loop, enable not only to improve customer experience, but also to optimize supply chain and inventory management or reduce costs and increase margins due to extensive data analytics.
Opportunity through hardware
The market is filled with hundreds of different technologies that use IoT capabilities to solve problems and provide a more effective way of dealing with them. We’re going to discuss the two most common bluetooth-enabled technologies: beacons and NFC. They are especially interesting as they allow for a multitude of use cases.
These small transmitter-receivers are able to communicate with other devices (like smartphones) via a low-energy Bluetooth (BLE). Beacons detect devices, which are in their range (typically up to 50–70 metres) and are able to trigger action based on that. For instance, when a person with a smartphone enters the beacon’s range, it recognizes its unique identifier and can send a notification to their phone. Now, this starts to be interesting, when you consider, what that notification could be. Because the beacon knows exactly who the smartphone belongs to (if the person is on the database of the seller) it is possible to send a highly customized message based on the purchase history and demographics. And we all know, that customers are more likely to respond to a customized offer rather than to a generic one, driving more sales. Beacons also enable more effective indoor navigation or asset tracking.
Near-field communication (NFC)
These are small chips, which can trigger action only when an NFC-enabled device (could also be a smartphone of a newer generation) is very close to it (up to 2 inches). This allows for a much more detailed interaction. Think redeeming discount codes upon touching a smartphone on an NFC chip hidden behind an ad or touch payments or much quicker inventory check-ins or NFC-enabled locks and so on.
What does it take to design and implement an IoT solution?
There are hundreds, if not thousands of IoT products and solutions on the market. From industrial solutions used at production lines and for perishable goods monitoring to customer-facing sensors in retail stores. Each of them is designed for a specific use, to address a specific problem and achieve a desired, beneficial effect. Finding an appropriate product or a combination of them that will address the problem precisely and effectively is not easy. It requires time to understand the problematic matter as well as knowledge about available technologies and how to combine them to produce a profitable final solution. Very often, additional software components need to be created or altered like mobile applications for customers, or platforms for data management and analysis.
Will you give it a try?
As you can see Internet of Things only sounds enigmatic at the beginning. Being able to create and utilize a network of devices connected to the internet introduces endless possibilities of driving more sales, creating new business models, optimizing costs and increasing margins. This is already happening!
Are you at the forefront of the revolution or are you a laggard?