We need to stop thinking about the Internet of Things as a thing

In the last few weeks, the author found himself several times talking with people about the “Internet of Things Market”. The fact is that there really is no such thing. IoT is a way of thinking about the use of remote monitoring and management of devices to achieve a particular goal. As such it exists within a technology environment that includes things like crowd-sourced data, enterprise resource planning systems and the internet itself. Thinking of the IoT as a separate entity with its own ‘market’ risks missing the fact that all of these technological capabilities interact and, in many cases, compete.

One area where we need to be particularly vigilant is in considering the ‘Non-IoT’, i.e. technology use cases that sit adjacent to the linear process of remote device monitoring, control, management and analytics. A fantastic example of ‘Non-IoT’ is provided by the fascinating work done by Professor Hideyuki Tokuda at Keio University. Part of his work is focused on sensorising web data. Specifically this involves using a sensoriser tool to tag web content in a Chrome browser which then effectively creates a web sensor, reporting back from that site either a constant stream of data or an update as the content changes. It could be tagged to video feeds, weather information or any number of other things. The analogy with remote sensing IoT devices is obvious. Both provide ways to gather potentially highly valuable data and plug it into an enterprise system for some purpose. Of course the sensorisation approach gathers data from the virtual rather than the real world, but both could be equally valid. And indeed the virtual world data could easily stem from the real world.

Another obvious example was flagged up by my colleague Jeremy Green in a recent Research Note for Machina Research on a company called Ma3route. This Kenyan start-up has a crowd-sourced traffic information system to help drivers avoid traffic jams. The smart cities/IoT solution would probably involve loops in the road, overhead gantries, traffic light sequencing and so forth. But this ‘Non-IoT’ solution gets to the nub of the problem and provides a low cost effective solution.

The Internet of Things really describes a set of technologies that enable data to be gathered and fed into a process of some sort, from simple consumer entertainment through to highly complex enterprise systems. By no means does that process always have to involve remote sensing devices. We tend to think of the remote device as the quintessence of the IoT. But it isn’t. That focus on starting with connecting devices is the single biggest problem with really making IoT meaningful. “Let’s connect it and then decide what to do with it” might not exactly be a mantra, but it does neatly sum up some of what has been happening in the last few years.

The result of all this is that we need to consider first and foremost the problem that needs to be solved, before worrying about the tools being used. This seems self-evident, but the last couple of years have seen a shift whereby it is ‘problem solving’ companies that are leading the charge on IoT, rather than the ‘tools providers’. The best examples of problem solvers are systems integrators. They generally don’t concern themselves with being in the IoT. They are focused on resolving issues for their clients which may be able to take advantage of the manifold tools that we lump together under the umbrella of IoT. Or those solutions may go nowhere near what we term IoT. It doesn’t matter.

So there really is no IoT market. There are markets for modules, connectivity, data analytics, professional services and so forth. But all of them exist in a broader landscape. That doesn’t mean that the phrase isn’t useful for describing what we as an industry do. But we shouldn’t get blinkered in our thinking. There’s a whole lot of Non-IoT out there and we need to consider that as well.

The author of this blog is Matt Hatton, Founder & CEO, Machina Research

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