The Internet of Things (IoT) has been the true star of this year's MWC show in Barcelona. How can enterprises take advantage of the connected life, what changes will intelligent sensing bring, where and when will de facto standards and methodologies emerge, and which apps and IoT developments are set for success are some of the questions that have pervaded a bunch of sessions at the show. The IoT is beginning to shake off its 'emerging tech' label, yet there are significant challenges ahead. Is the future really IoT-centric?
For Alicia Asín, CEO and co-Founder at Libelium, a company that makes an open source IoT sensor aimed at M2M and smart cities, the possibilities of IoT are clear: "by 2050, the world will be full of sensors and it will be possible to integrate them to any communication protocol," she told an MWC session on IoT.
Nevertheless, the future of the Internet of Things is far from being written. The market is still fragmented and it's difficult to predict how it will shape up, according to Libelium's CEO.
"Analyzing Libelium sales, we realize there is no Pareto rule at all, but just small trends," she said. There's still much to be decided about the technologies that will underpin IoT systems, given the number of industry groups and opposing standards that are fighting to establish dominance over IoT. "The technology we are going to use for IoT is not on the market yet," Asín said, even if the ever-present "mobile handsets could be a standard sensor".
At MWC, there has been no shortage of IoT themed announcements, from accelerators aiming to foster startups in the field, partnerships between companies to jointly develop IoT offerings, and new products aimed at consumers and businesses alike.
It's this last area, the enterprise, where many believe IoT will start to take off.
Asín said that IoT will have life beyond smart city and M2M applications, citing examples where sensors have made a difference to existing small, niche businesses, such as where sensors were used monitor an anaconda terrarium or conditions in a beehive.
And it's not just small firms that have noticed potential for IoT in unexpected places. AT&T's CEO Ralph de la Vega said the carrier expects cars, homes, and even garbage bins to be connected.
AT&T recently connected up trash cans with sensors for a recycling and waste management company, to allow it to know how much waste is in bins and so work out when's the best time to empty them. For the waste company, that means saving time and money by not sending people to empty the garbage containers before they're full. De la Vega noted drolly he never thought he would "look into a garbage bin to see revenue".
René Honig, VP of strategy, portfolio and innovation at Shell, told MWC that in his industry, the uptake of IoT will be driven by push and pull factors - presumably, demand from companies in the oil and gas field asking for better tracking of their assets, and mobile companies offering products tailored to such businesses.
Given energy demand will double by 2050, Shell believes IoT infrastructure could be crucial to get the most from connected vehicles - the company has already started a pilot project with SAP and Volkswagen to examine how autonomous cars would function in the real world, including how they'd fuel up.
Unsurprisingly, tech firms are queuing up to offer new ways for companies to manipulate the vast amounts of data that connected objects generate. Bill McDermott, CEO at SAP, said business models will need to be adapted to the flood of real time data gathering: "Real time insight is the key for the 21st century enterprise," he said. "The more sophisticated a product is, and the simpler you can make it, the more you are going to sell it," he added. With 90 percent of data in enterprises remaining unanalyzed today, according to McDermott, that represents another market opportunity.
Businesses may see the possibilities that IoT can bring in an industrial landscape, but when it comes to gathering information on individuals, there are a number of issues that stand to hold the technology back from consumer adoption.
AT&T's de la Vega told MWC that the challenges that the technology industry is facing on IoT revolve around three fundamental keywords: safety, privacy and "effortlessness" - that is, consumers need to be able to easily adapt to the new environment. Getting all three right will be the only way to convince consumers to adopt IoT products is the message, but as MWC has heard elsewhere, building consumer trust is something the mobile industry is struggling with across the board.
Nonetheless, tech companies are already looking into how to get IoT into consumers' homes.
BSH Home is hoping consumers will see a place for IoT in their kitchens: "The opportunity of the connected kitchen is not just the device but the process in your kitchen," Karsten Ottenberg, CEO at BSH Home, told MWC - that is, what's important isn't having a connected kitchen, but digitizing the cooking process to connect up the different processes going on. BSH has already begun looking for new ways to put IoT in the heart of the home, recently organizing an IoT hackathon in Berlin BSH Home - the winning app was one that enabled a user to scan a pizza box to find out what temperature to cook it at and how long for, enabling home cooks to make the perfect pizza.
If there is one connected object that consumers are showing signs of warming to, it's wearables like smartbands and smartwatches - a segment analysts believe will grow markedly once the Apple Watch is released. According to Juniper Research, the market was worth $4.5bn in 2014, and will grow to $53.2 by 2019.
Swarovski is just one of the companies aiming for a slice of the market, which sells activity tracking jewelry developed in collaboration with Misfit, a company that invents and manufactures wearable computing products. Joan Ng, SVP of product marketing at Swarovski, said fostering uptake of wearables goes beyond functionality, it's about design as well. "For us, look is more important than functionality, so offering options is key", Ng said, adding that there's no reason fashion and technology should be mutually exclusive if companies from both industries can work in partnership.
Mobile industry at the heart
Given MWC is a celebration of all things mobile, it's perhaps no surprise that many with an interest in IoT are keen to stress that carriers will be at the heart of the burgeoning industry.
Eventually, Hans Vestberg, president and CEO at Ericsson, recalled that if there has to be 50 billion connected devices by 2020, "connectivity is king". "Mobility, broadband and the cloud are changing logics in business," and "we need to work in a different way", he said. In this regard, stressed the need for partnerships, and saying companies need to be more efficient in delivering data. There is some way to go before we find the ideal solution, he concluded.
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