The Internet of Things has a vision problem

We’ve had a series of problems of late with core technology initiatives largely because we tend to get excited about the technology and not think through what an acceptable solution would be. For instance, we are still struggling with the problem of big data. We grew repositories and didn’t think through that it wasn’t the amount of data that was important, it was the decision support we could get from it.

This was most noticeable with the U.S. Security Services who, after 911, didn’t realize their primary problem was timely analysis and effective/timely response not data acquisition. As a result they spent billions increasing data collection and storage rather than improving analysis and timing, increasing PR problems (Snowden) while actually degrading their response time.  

[ Related: What will the Internet of Things be when it grows up ]

With the Internet of Things (IoT) the problem starts with the name, which doesn’t convey a core value but a technical state (connected things) and focuses people again on quantity rather than quality. “Smart” was far better because it implied a solution that made things better as opposed to just made things different. A connected device isn’t inherently better than a disconnected device unless you somehow add intelligence or additional needed functionality. And as Chrysler showcased, just focusing on connectivity can be problematic.

Dell hosts an annual 1-5-10 meeting of folks ranging from analysts to journalists to large customers like GE connected to a particular technology or initiative. This year’s meeting was about IoT [Disclosure: Dell is a client of the author]. Basically, this is a Delphi like meeting where the attendees talk about what will change in one year, five years and eventually in 10 years. Dell captures this and then takes it back to their product folks as part of their strategy and funding effort for whatever group the meeting focuses on.

One of the things that came through to me during this session, other than we seem to be on the third (or more) attempt to reinvent this wheel, is that we continue to focus on the technology and scope of work being done with IoT and not on the broad benefits or ideal user experience.   This goes right to the name, which came out of the Auto-ID center at MIT, and spoke to how, where everything was connected, our lives would massively change. In 2015 progress was documented by the number of devices that were connected online and Korea won with the U.S. coming in at a distant fourth. This is like measuring a hospital by the number of patents rather than how effective it is at curing people.  

Currently security is becoming a huge impediment to IoT because of concerns surrounding attackers using this access to destroy a company, home, or nation.   With sensors and focused analytics it could become a solution for the security problems constantly looking for both physical and electronic anomalies. With this approach, instead of being blocked by a problem that needs to be overcome, the technology is focused on correcting an existing security problem and security gets baked in up front as a result. This effectively falls into the “if given Lemons make Lemonade” category.  

[ Related: 3 reasons to be wary of the Internet of Things ]

What I think we are really lacking with IoT is a compelling showcase or example of how life would improve in an IoT world or company. It was an effort like this created by Disney and GE for the 1964 World’s Fair called the Carousel of Progress that did a nice job of showcasing how technology very much like IoT could make the cities of tomorrow more compelling. In many ways it helped focus the world on a common vision on how to apply technology to create a more powerful result.  

A later effort, the Monsanto House of the Future focused more on home automation, but showcased technologies, including a robotic vacuum cleaner, that would emerge decades later (an interesting side note is that this house was nearly indestructible, something that came as a bit of a surprise to the wrecking ball operator who tried to first destroy it in 1967). But this effort desperately needs a vision that talks about the benefits and not just the technology and security risks to advance to its true potential.

While I may sound negative I’m a huge fan of the underlying concept behind IoT, much like I was about the home and industrial automation years earlier. I’m actually on my fourth Smarthome. The thing is, we often get more excited in the technology industry about the technology and forget that real people have to love this stuff if they are going to invest in it. How can it be used to make people safer, more productive, happier, less stressed out, more efficient and, of course, save money. Too often we focus too much on the how and not enough of the compelling parts of the why and then we’re surprised at how slowly advancement occurs.   In short more iPad less Windows tablet.

With a dream we made it to the moon in a few years, but when we lost the dream Mars became unattainable. With IoT we desperately need a common vision of a tomorrow and a critical mass of folks to believe enough to make happen. Without that this simply becomes another effort to push technology to group of buyers who are more defined by their unwillingness to change than in their desire to create a better company and world.


Rob Enderle

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