Profiting from the IoT surge: the view from the front line of service innovation
There’s no doubt that debate about the IoT and its direction has risen from being a specialist subject to near the top of the boardroom agenda for many companies in just a few years. Amongst all the white noise, death-by-powerpoint presentations and sometimes desperate posturing by peripheral vendors to generate IoT-relevant marketing, it’s sometimes difficult to see the actual reality behind the virtual smoke and mirrors.
Alun Lewis, IoT Now’s editor, recently sat down with Philip Cole, European sales director and cofounder of Wireless Logic, to look more closely at where all this growth was coming from – and where it was heading; how his company was moving even more deeply into the added services offering; and the optimum strategies that both IoT solution vendors and their customers should adopt to fully exploit the emerging IoT terrain.
IoT Now: Philip, it’s just over a year since we last had an insight into what you were up to. How was 2015 for you and Wireless Logic?
PC: There are as wide a set of answers to that question as there are facets of the IoT universe! Taking a purely quantitative perspective first, in raw connectivity terms we’ve seen growth in the order of hundreds of percent in Europe alone and now support well over two million subscriptions through our close partnerships with many network operators covering that continent. Similarly scaled increases can also be seen in the sheer amounts of data that we’re hauling for customers – and that literally signals some interesting shifts in IoT and M2M application profiles that illustrate how content is also becoming part of the IoT service mix. We also made what we think will be some strategically beneficial acquisitions, such as SIM Service in Denmark, while also simultaneously broadening and deepening our relationships with a range of system integrators, resellers and market-specific solution providers. On the last point, via those relationships, we now have access to a ‘virtual’ salesforce of around four and a half thousand people working for around 1500 solutions providers of all shapes and sizes across the continent, many of them deeply knowledgeable about particular territories, technologies and industry and business sectors.
Taking a wider viewpoint, I’d also say that 2015 was the year that the IoT started to reach a critical mass in a number of different ways. Firstly, general awareness has started rising steeply. Whereas a year or two ago you’d have got a vaguely blank look from the average man or woman in the street if you’d used the terms M2M or IoT, many people now have been exposed to at least some aspect of it via their Connected Cars, Smart Energy and Smart Homes – or are even just finding that some of their new devices have started ‘talking’ to each other without any human intervention. This recognition is now starting to affect consumer decision-making where white goods, cars, home security systems and other assets are concerned and that in turn is pulling even more manufacturers, service support companies and retailers into the IoT community
The other corollary of growing awareness on both sides of the vendor/consumer mix is that many different types of company are now reexamining their business models and looking at how they can turn products into services – the so-called ‘servitisation’ strategy. It’s a strategy that we should be well aware of in the IT and comms sectors – essentially the parents of the IoT revolution – where locking users into repeat fees and creating and monetising longer term relationships has been a critical way of escaping the problems of rapid technology change, price erosion, and inevitable user churn. When you wrap an IoT-supported service around a product, you’re effectively using the IoT to create a new ‘instrument’, as it might be called in the financial sector, and in a growing number of sectors, traditional manufacturers who still rely on one-off product sales will find longer term business increasingly tough and revenue sources even more intermittent. Behind everything should lie the vision of connected customers as living human beings – not just connected devices and assets.
IoT Now: How are these shifts and changes actually translating into projects out in the field – and what demands are customers making as they seek to IoT-ise their businesses?
PC: Probably one critical issue that I touched on in an earlier answer is the sheer diversity of the projects and application areas that we’re involved with. In that context, many of the companies – and people – that we work with tend to come from a hardware/product background. That’s why our approach of offering flexible but structured service bundles to them, along with appropriate SLAs obviously, makes their entry into the IoT world much more straightforward and understandable for them.
One increasingly key aspect of this involves not just the diversity of the business sectors, but also the current expansion in connectivity options. We’ve always been bearer agnostic, to use the technical term, and we find many clients needing a mix that often include both wireless or wireline options to ensure redundancy in mission or enterprise-critical applications such as electronic Point of Sale systems.
In terms of cellular technologies, it’s been interesting to see some of our customers starting to use 3G and particularly 4G access in some of their IoT applications where content delivery is part of their business – such as regularly updating digital advertising and signage in shops and malls. We’re also seeing this play out in the telematics and logistics sector as well with dashboard cameras increasingly being fitted to lorries and public transport. Those images or footage need to be captured and stored and can sometimes end up as invaluable evidence in court cases.
There’s also the family of technologies loosely known as Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) such as LoRa and SIGFOX and, from the cellular side, LTE-M and NB-IoT. Once again, we’re fully able to support these on our connectivity management platform – and the still important and relevant satellite option – as well. As I said, many of our customers don’t care about the underlying technology as such – they just want to be sure that wireless connectivity won’t limit their deployment of devices or trackable assets and that they’ve got the equivalent of five bars of signal strength, or another connectivity option instantly available to fall back upon should one go down for any reason.
In terms of our wider network/IO environment, we could consider ourselves from a network infrastructure perspective in some ways to be the IoT equivalent of Blackberry – and that has implications for the all-important issue of security. Your IoT traffic might be transiting public networks, but all the plumbing behind that is fully protected and encrypted, travelling over our VPNs and using fixed IP addresses invisible to outsiders in totally private and secure ways.
IoT Now: One recurring issue that has consistently cropped up during the whole evolution of the convergence sector – and increasingly connected businesses and consumers – is how you hide the incredible underlying complexity of all the systems involved and make them readily usable by nonexperts. What developments does Wireless Logic see emerging here?
PC: It’s just like many similar shifts that have already happened in other areas such as traditional retail – a move towards automation and true self-service – and that involves reducing the friction that’s often historically inherent in the many processes involved. To be successful, the IoT sector has to make a similar transition, moving from essentially craft-based, humanintensive interactions to single-push enablement for devices and services aimed at the consumer market.
Wireless Logic is currently developing platforms that will enable both consumers – and those retailers who want to get close to them and create those long-term relationships that I touched on earlier – to have out-of-the-box IoT solutions. Obviously, that also involves far more than just implementing automated and streamlined service and device activation processes. Billing models, processes and systems in particular also need to be adapted and refined to cope with this new transaction terrain and that’s not always going to be easy as we move into totally new commercial areas.
Similar self-examination is also going to be essential in the area of relationship management – and I deliberately didn’t use the word customer there as value chains in this new world are going to be long, multi-faceted and be a complex mix of the usual acronyms: B2C2M2B and so on…
Any well-established company moving into new areas instantly makes itself a hostage to fortune and can risk long term investments in its brand – marketeers, for example, still talk about the Coca Cola’s disastrous attempt to introduce a ‘new’ version back in the 1980s. Many companies have tried to move out of their comfort zones and diversify, especially as new technologies eroded traditional boundaries, only to have to retrench later.
That’s why Wireless Logic is investing heavily in ensuring that the systems that underpin these new value chains are flexible, robust, user friendly – irrespective of who the user is – and secure.
From the vendor and operator perspective, those investments mean that the Wireless Logic SIMPro management platform is able to empower SIM estate owners to easily manage multiple SIMs across more than 30 networks with all the functions and processes that they need to incorporate IoT functionality into their services and products: provisioning, tariff management, grouping, real-time data usage, billing management and reporting. Additionally, all these processes are becoming increasingly automated through our continued investment, cutting CAPEX, operational costs and de-skilling the need to have dedicated and expensive staff running the network and service operations. Connectivity and device and service management can then become much more intimately integrated with all the other enterprise systems a company might already have, such as ERP. This issue of boundaries between systems also reflects the issues that can arise when national borders are taken into account in developing solutions. We’re increasingly working with customers who have multi-country – and even multi-continent – requirements. By being able to deliver a single portal interface, supported by consistent pricing strategies and SLAs, companies have a stable operational environment through which to offer their goods and services.
IoT Now: That issue of integration surely though adds even more complexity? It’s one thing to introduce a new technology, but far more difficult to integrate it with a company’s existing processes, organisational structures and traditions. Many people – even engineers – are conservative by nature and resist even beneficial change.
PC: There’s always going to be a tension here – especially as the more disruptive models that many internet-based businesses rely on meet more established and status quo oriented cultures. Some IoT services and applications might be appropriate to fit into the permanent ‘beta test’ profile that some internet and social networking businesses rely on. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is famous for once having described, “Move fast and break things” as his company’s informal motto. It’s totally inappropriate to have such a culture in IoT areas where people’s lives, possessions, cars, energy supplies or even health might be at stake. Shortterm fixes and solutions can often translate into early burnouts and burnups as we’ve seen in a depressing number of cases.
That’s why we know Wireless Logic has to engage in a careful balancing act – which we seem to achieve successfully. Many MNOs essentially offer a ‘one size fits all’ model that fails to meet the needs of IoT users, even where basic factors such as 2/3/4G network availability and roaming are concerned. Alternatively, when IoT users try to stitch their own coverage together, entering into relationships with multiple MNOs, then they immediately run across all the hassles and overheads involved in managing SIMs across different networks. Coming to us, they’ll get a ‘network of networks’ approach that eliminates that complexity and expense. On top of that, they’ll also miss out on our much bespoke offering approach that involves engaging in a consultation period to explore and define exactly what the customer is trying to achieve, both strategically and tactically over short and long terms.
We’re fortunate in this context that our sales and support partners – the 1500 or so companies now spread across Europe that I mentioned earlier – can provide the insight and expertise that ensures that consultation and tailoring doesn’t slow innovation and service rollout. Someone wise once said that being a consultant didn’t mean that you had the answers – it just meant that you knew which were the right questions to ask…
If that’s how we’re dealing with the customer end, I should also add that we’re also developing very close links with the many different types of hardware, device and sensor providers now engaged in this market. As the intelligence and memory of devices and gateways continues to grow – and reduce in cost – we’re increasingly going to have a choice about where we process information and how much we choose to transmit and when.
IoT Now: So how’s all this translating into the bottom line for Wireless Logic ?
PC: It was just over a year ago that CVC Capital Partners took over as our main investors following a four-year partnership with ECI Partners. During our time with ECI, we’d opened offices in France, Germany and Spain, more than doubled our workforce and tripled our subscriber base to around 1.5 million. Looking to the year ahead, we confidently expect to continue this year on year growth rate of around 20%, bringing our revenues to nearly £50 million and driving up total European SIM subscriptions to about 2.5 million, with triple digit growth expected across Europe. We also have a major funding war chest in conjunction with CVC Capital Partners and that’s going to enable an active acquisition strategy which may drive significant additions to our portfolio. There might be many wild speculations about the potential size of the IoT market, but the figures above clearly show where Wireless Logic is heading.