While the Internet of Things has had more than its share of hype, it's already having an impact on businesses large and small by providing immediate access to observable data.
Light Reading Editor-in-Chief Ray Le Maistre reported for Telco Transformation earlier this year from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about WEF discussion on the coming industrial revolution -- driven by the Internet of Things.
"One of the really big… transformations going on in the [telco] industry at the moment…is around the business case around the Internet of Things -- and the next industrial revolution," related Le Maistre. "So at the World Economic Forum, that next industrial revolution was one of the big talking points."
Of course, "revolution" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot as evangelists turn up the hype on whatever the digital-technology flavor of the month is. IoT is no stranger to this phenomenon, but "revolution" may well be the WEF's most apt term for it in this case because of what IoT technology is accomplishing now – and what it stands to accomplish in the future.
"The WEF calls this period a cyber-physical revolution [because] the proliferation of IoT devices, especially the ones with sensors, will allow for the digitalization of physical information," Lucy Lombardi, Telecom Italia's senior vice president of Innovation and Industry Relations, explained to Telco Transformation in an email interview on her company's IoT philosophy. "Once it is digitalized, it is not geolocalized; it is transferrable to any part of the globe [and] it is easy and cheap to copy."
The revolution, in this case, is thereby about the democratization of access to physically observable data. As such, it is completely changing the way large enterprises and small startups alike do business.
"We are at a point now where we can enable better consumer experiences without actually building anything," Kyle Seaman, director of Farm Technology for Freight Farms, told a nearly full audience at a breakout session during this month's Massachusetts Technology Council's Internet of Things Conference.
Seaman should know. Freight Farms, a barely six-year-old Boston startup, relies heavily on IoT technology to provide the foundation to the service element of its product: hydroponic farms -- yielding the equivalent of an acre and a half of crops --
housed inside of pharmaceutical-grade shipping containers. Freight Farms is partnered with Xively -- a division of LogMeIn that provides PaaS-enabled IoT solutions for enterprises, including a variety of web-based tools and developer resources, directory services for search accessibility and permission management, and data services for advanced analytics, reporting and resultant automation.
"I built all of our apps [on] our stack [and] it was only possible because I was consuming every API I could," said Seaman, all thanks to the DevOps resources available to him in the public cloud.
"You basically become a software-as-a-service company," observed Jeff Kaplan, managing director of cloud and IoT consultancy THINKstrategies, as he moderated the conference panel in which Seaman participated. "What the premise has been over the past few years is that the world is moving from products to services -- [and] the power of the cloud is making IoT bigger and better."
Physical data -- lots and lots of data -- lie at the heart of this cloud- and IoT-fueled market shift. The revolutionary part, for Kaplan, is that tangible, consumable products are not only generating this information treasure trove in real-time but also becoming redefined by it. Hence, explained Kaplan, IoT turns products into services -- services that have the potential for new, recurring revenue models.
"You start thinking about other business opportunities [with IoT]," said Kaplan.
For Paddy Srinivasan, general manager and vice president of Xively IoT (and another of Kaplan's panelists), IoT itself and the business opportunities it offers are no longer optional.
"The expectations are changing, [and] devices are now expected to be connected," noted Srinivasan, arguing that today's end user fully expects and demands connectivity for anything that costs $100 or more.
Accordingly, finding the right service provider and the right platform that can best self-actualize the business user through open APIs, web portals and other tools is vital to modern business agility.
"IoT especially is uncharted. We don't know [the] best... protocols. It's always messy," said Seaman. "By trying to go it alone, you're just disadvantaging yourself."
Ward Bowman, a principal software architect at General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) and Kaplan's third panelist, joined Seaman in emphasizing these points.
"You don't build anything yourself anymore; it's just impossible," said Bowman. "We work with IBM and Intel and say, 'Hey, come in and help us.' "
Srinivasan conceded that while IoT may still be a few years from maturity, the technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. Using Xively as an example, Srinivasan pointed out that his company is now able to measure progress for it customers -- something that used to take months -- within eight days.
"We can figure this out fast because this is what we do," said Srinivasan. "We are a software company, while hardware companies build other things."
"It would be totally different five years ago," agreed Bowman on the matter of heightened IoT and software-driven agility. "We actually see the platform as very important, [and] we are trying to build our platform to predict [user needs]."
In this way, noted Bowman, GE's focus is to empower its platform users. For startup technologists like Seaman, then, IoT is truly revolutionary because it puts the power in their hands -- providing the cloud- and web-based tools necessary to customize to their business needs on their own.
"I like to think of myself as a mechanic and not an engineer," quipped Seaman.
Bowman summed up the situation yet more succinctly: "You can't build it if you can't do it yourself."
— Joe Stanganelli, Contributing Writer