Going to IoT, Que Será, Será

apparition-of-face-and-fruit-dish-on-a-beachQue sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see

A new year starts in Techno Land, and Technology Media Outlets reminds me of Doris Day singing “Que será será” in the Man Who Knew Too Much: “the future’s theirs to see“. As every new year, they start with the same fanfare of much-hyped messages and, to be fair, you could pick yesteryear’s news headlines and throw them again changing 2 or 3 acronyms at most and nobody would notice. What do they think 2014 has in store for us?

According to VentureBeat, 2014 will be the year of the Internet of things (IoT). Following Frost & Sullivan, they observe that, this year, machines will generate more data than people. That, in turn, will trigger demand for data analytics tools and cloud-based data services; and with data coming in more frequently, connectivity will need to be highly reliable. And these are the areas where companies will have to spend money.

That’s basically what the leading IT, consumer and industrial companies have been preaching for a while because they need to look like they’re on top of the next big thing, and because they badly need new revenue streams or, even better, more revenue from the very same streams. And alas, IoT is where all their streams meet together.

Cisco talks about the Internet of everything, and it can surely benefit by selling more switches and routers as more devices send data among networks. GE prefers the marketing term Industrial Internet. GE, naturally, stands to gain as the Internet of things takes off, because it could sell more heavy-duty equipment. IBM recently launched a ”starter kit” for the Internet of things with Libelium, and Intel just announced a new business unit named the Internet of Things Solutions Group. Just google “internet of things” together with the name of your favourite company and you will see. (You won’t even need to type it all thanks to google auto-complete…)

So far so good, but what will be the killer app that popularizes IoT? Business Insider comes with a tricky answer: “After a time, the question will become, what applications won’t the Internet of Things touch?” 2013 was the year of Fitbit and Jawbone. IoT will make many of these familiar devices and objects internet-connected and smartphone-accessible. Gadget by gadget, people are coming to expect that even the most common things will be more useful when they are connected: watches, thermostats, sports equipment, power meters, washing machines, light bulbs, ornamental bulbs, pets, livestock… If you can think of it, someone has probably stuck a sensor on it and connected it to the Internet. And that’s why by 2020, analysts project, there will be 50 billion Internet-connected devices, or five gadgets for every man, woman and child.

Starting today, this year CES is expected to feature IoT, with new laptops, tablets and smartphones dwarfed in prominence by special exhibits for connected auto mobiles, the smart home and wearable computers, the latter with an emphasis on fitness and health products. It sounds terrific, doesn’t it?

The Internet of Things will surely have very broad applications. GE estimates that about 46 percent of the global economy or $32.3 trillion in global output can benefit from the Industrial Internet. According to Gartner, most applications will be rooted in four usage scenarios: IoT will improve processes, asset utilization, and products and services in one of, or a combination of, the following ways:

  • Manage — Connected things can be monitored and optimized. For example, sensors on an asset can be optimized for maximum performance or increased yield and up time.
  • Charge — Connected things can be monetized on a pay-per-use. For example, automobiles can be charged for insurance based on mileage.
  • Operate — Connected things can be remotely operated, avoiding the need to go on site. For example, field assets such as valves and actuators can be controlled remotely.
  • Extend — Connected things can be extended with digital services such as content, upgrades and new functionality. For example, connected healthcare equipment can receive software upgrades that improve functionality.

Nuevo Presentación de Microsoft PowerPointHowever Gartner draws IoT still crawling up the Hype Cycle. They think that even if it is getting more attention overall, interest in the Internet of Things has grown faster than implementations. Though I am not particularly fond of Gartner’s hype cycle, I have to agree with them when they predict that IoT, together with other related technologies, will not reach maturity for more than 10 years, especially in key areas of application like smart cities due to both technical complexity and cultural, social and political difficulties.

Like many other really transformational technologies, it will still take a long time for IoT to have a truly deep impact. This is what has happened once and again: it is what happened with electricity or with cars in 20th century, and the internet of things won’t be an exception in this 21st century. It takes years for technologies like these to fully work and carve their way out into society. 20 years of mainstream internet give us some perspective, but IoT is still too young and only many years from now, looking back to the past, will we be able to compare, analyse and understand properly. If you don’t believe me, let me quote my favourite economist Brian Arthur:

(…) it takes many decades from the excitement of inception for these technologies to fully work. In the case of the automobile, the technology took 40 years to go from merely “working” to eventually becoming fully part of our lives. It took 80 years, from 1880 to 1960 for the technology to become comfortable. The final phase of a technology is for it to disappear. As John Seely Brown puts it: “Technology has not fully arrived until it disappears—until it is so much a part of us that we don’t see it.” (Brian Arthur, “Myths and Realities of the High-Tech Economy”)

Technology has not fully arrived until it disappears—until it is so much a part of us that we cannot see it because we simply ignore it. This is what I am going to be working on with some of my colleagues at Telefonica I+D in the coming months. This is what real innovation is all about and makes it exciting: to make things disappear from your sight because they become part of you. Is it magic? No it’s not, but kind of.

What is for sure is that while you can see it in the headlines and hear the fanfare, you can forget it. It is still in the making…


Featured Image: Salvador Dali, Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach

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