It’s easy to overlook the Internet of Things as a genuinely cohesive concept, primarily because its sheer scale and scope makes it hard to get any real perspective on. It’s already so ubiquitous, it effectively ends up being hidden in plain sight.
In a nutshell, the Internet of Things (IoT) is an umbrella term referring to the collective network of all devices, objects and systems that are able to receive, log and transmit data. In other words, anything equipped with ‘smart’ technology. In 2017, that already includes a lot of stuff – and the landscape is set to broaden dramatically over the next few years.
If we think about the exponential growth of the internet itself over the past three decades, it’s easy to see how quickly these networks spread, powered by the irresistible thrust of technological innovation. In 1990 there were something like 300,000 computers hooked up to the ‘information superhighway’, as some of us (awkwardly, and often with a puzzled look) called it at the time.
Today, more than 2 billion phones have plugged themselves into that same initial network. By 2020, there will be an estimated 13 billion other, non-communications-based devices – everything from toasters and luggage to cars, buildings and subdermal patches – piggybacking on it too. All of them are aiming to change, and ideally improve, the way we live.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing thus far. From a hairbrush that monitors and corrects your grooming technique to a fitness collar for tubby dogs, a giddy obsession with smart tech quickly earned the IoT a reputation for churning out warehouses full of gadgets that should probably have stayed dumb.
Ultimately though, that’s all just symptomatic of how pervasive the IoT already is in our lives. So quickly have cutting-edge innovations like Amazon Echo and Google Home been adopted on a grand scale, they already seem somehow pedestrian. Again, the ubiquity of the IoT partially obscures just how big a sea change is underway here.
While the main driver behind the IoT’s rapid expansion is quote-unquote progress (for want of a less nebulous term), there are of course other key factors at play. Chief among them is the one thing that ultimately defines the IoT: data.
Business by the numbers
There’s data available on most everything nowadays, if only someone out there has a reason, however tenuous, to bother collecting it. And, in almost every case, someone can – which is why so many of the innovations emerging from our first tentative steps into the IoT have looked downright hilarious at first glance.
The fact that our current era is often referred to as ‘the information age’ is no idle shorthand; indeed, the staggering power of data in modern societies and economies is hard to overstate. And, given how heavily it relies on data, the business world will be one of the first sectors to feel the full impact and potential of the IoT’s unfettered growth.
A vastly increased range of direct connection points with consumers is one obvious and immediate benefit. Smart devices and systems potentially allow businesses to track precisely what a user is doing with a product or service – something that companies of all stripes have had to sink sizeable research budgets into levelling an educated guess at in the past.
Efficiency boosts on various fronts are another huge business advantage offered by a proliferating IoT. Many smart devices and systems are being used already to boost profitability right along the production line – everyday examples including smart energy meters that automatically tweak office and factory power settings to reduce operating costs, real-time goods tracking and inventory management programs, and apps for live reporting on distribution networks or traffic conditions.
Of course, the use of telematics for coordinating fleet movement and shift patterns isn’t a new concept. What’s new is that all this data is captured, delivered and – in many cases – automatically acted upon pretty much instantaneously.
Investing in the future
To current business, the main stumbling block in all this is, unsurprisingly, the cost involved in trying to catch up and stay ahead. Microchips, sensors and WiFi relay components are rapidly tumbling in price year on year, but dragging a traditional production line right up to date with all these bleeding-edge innovations in one fell swoop would still be eye-wateringly expensive for most brands.
Quite apart from anything else, the sheer amount of data it’s now possible to gather from every facet of business means that many of the larger corporations have had to shift to cloud-based hosting solutions, necessitating a thorough rejig of the entire IT back end. In a majority of cases, embracing the IoT culture fully is going to have to be a far more piecemeal process.
Additionally, there’s the difficult challenge of bringing staff up to speed on it all. Although a core benefit of embracing a business approach to the IoT is its eventual streamlining potential, reaching a stage where that actively boosts ROI will involve a lengthy process of corporate culture shift and adaptive training.
There’s also security to consider – and on that front, we don’t yet even fully know what the implications of having all this data floating around the cloud could be. If not handled properly, it’s easy to see how the IoT could end up ushering in a new golden era for hacking, malware, and even common or garden spam. Updating and uploading every aspect of a gloriously modern new enterprise stands to reap huge rewards for those that are able to do so, but it will count for little if the increasingly complex demands of corporate cybersecurity aren’t satisfied just as quickly.
In short, the extent to which gathered data will soon dictate every aspect of product design, production, marketing and customer service means that no competitive business can afford to get left behind as the IoT takes over.
Then again, plenty of competitive businesses literally can’t afford to stay at the cutting edge either – it’s set to be an interesting few years, whatever happens.