What is Holding Up the Internet of Things Ecosystem?
Does the Internet of Things (IoT) truly deserve its label of ‘fourth industrial revolution’? Will IoT disrupt industries and open doors for new markets? Are those substantial investments in IoT solutions justified and likely to materialise into $13 trillion ROI by 2025?
Those are few of the questions I ask myself when I bear in mind the complexity and lack of interoperability in the IoT ecosystem.
Don’t categorise me a sceptic however.
Yes, IoT is here to shake up the current connectivity paradigm. 24 billion IoT devices are expected to be connected by 2020, representing 70% of installed connections worldwide and largely outnumbering traditional computing devices like smartphones and tablets (which are expected to be 10 billion by 2020).
Yes, IoT is a global phenomenon. Spain, India, UAE, Singapore and Australia are some of the countries investing heavily in smart city projects. Looking at Singapore specifically, the government intends to become a Smart Nation by addressing the existential needs of citizens and society with IoT technologies in domains that include public sector services, transport, health, business productivity and the environment.
Yes, IoT has many use cases across verticals as shown below
‘Industrie 4.0’ is a German governmental project promoting the computerisation of manufacturing by connecting workpieces, machines and systems, enabling a smart factory to:
- self-diagnose, self-configure and self-optimise itself
- anticipate failures and trigger maintenance processes autonomously
Mobile applications and wearables that can:
- capture health data from patients
- conduct remote assessment and monitoring
- conduct large scale automated testing
- self-aware of its surrounding i.e. other cars, pedestrians, roads, signage, etc.
- capable of acting and reacting in accordance
We can also mention retail and agriculture, IoT impact almost every sector
But then again the current IoT ecosystem remains complex, uncoordinated and lacks a common set of standards and open infrastructure, resulting in high barriers to entry and favouring the dominance of proprietary end-to-end solutions among incumbent technology firms.
Is this situation likely to hold?
Well, looking at the evolution of the software industry and a key driver of the third industrial revolution as a benchmark: full potential was unleashed when an open and coordinated environment allowed for fragmentation and the rise of specialist players at each step of the value chain, though predominantly in the application arena.
Should a similar pattern occur for IoT, components of the ecosystem will move from today’s scenario with A. edge devices, B. gateways and C. IoT platforms being under the tight control of large incumbents and restraining the emergence of D. third party APIs and applications, to a new context in which A., B., and C. would develop interdependently and D. would tackle new market niche opportunities more effectively, thus accelerating user adoption.
A. Edge Devices
Hardware (e.g. wearables, machines, sensors) interacting with the environment through sensors and controllers, and retrieving data such as temperature, noise, light, vibration and position.
Required in complex environments for aggregating, filtering and processing data from multiple sensors.
Complex environments operate under various connectivity protocols with a different capacity, throughput, range, reliability, cost, and quality of service (QoS).
C. Telecom Networks
Connect devices and allow for the transmission of data at all levels of the IoT ecosystem among connectivity protocols such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cellular technologies (2G, 3G, 4G and 5G).
D. IoT Platforms
Cloud computing power and middleware between hardware and software (though often specific applications are included).
- Data storage and integration from edge devices and gateways
- Integrated applications
There are currently more than 380 platforms in the market and interoperability between them is key for an efficient IoT ecosystem.
E. Third Party APIs and Applications
Program performing a specific function on edge devices, thanks to the interoperability with IoT platforms.
IoT applications allow for the remote and automated control of individual machines or entire factories, home (thermostat, lights and appliances), cars, etc.
The following fictional case study illustrates further the complexity and some of the challenges that would be better dealt with in an open and coordinated IoT environment.
Case Study — Challenges of a Closed and Uncoordinated IoT Environment
Larry Gordon is the CTO of a large automotive company and is weighing the pros and cons of smart factories. On the upside, IoT shall certainly bring an efficient use of resources with 24/7 automated operations and the significant reduction of human errors in the manufacturing process.
However, edge devices have a high battery consumption, a limited lifespan, require intense maintenance, and sensors are often not sufficiently accurate to support good decision making.
Also, Larry is not convinced that existing applications offered by proprietary end-to-end IoT solutions are specialised enough to accommodate his needs. Hence, some devices will require real-time control while others may only be used intermittently upon the triggering of very specific events.
In this case study, Larry actually has 2 main concerns:
1) Edge devices are expensive and not performant enough.
2) There is a lack of tailored applications that fully comply with his company’s needs.
An open IoT ecosystem with common standards and a dominant infrastructure (rather than many scattered ones) would certainly have a positive impact by allowing for economies of scale in the production of edge devices, with the effects of driving costs down and value for money up. Also such as an ecosystem is likely to offer a robust platform for the development of applications targeted to specific niches and lower barriers to entry. Hence, application providers should not have to bear substantial costs to reinvent the wheel or sublet expensive proprietary infrastructures, but rather focus their efforts and R&D budget on value creation.