Internet Of Things Hype: The Sound And The Fury

A lot of what’s proposed for the IoT isn’t new, and some of it is just plain ridiculous. Check out some of these concepts.

popularity

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Bill was referring to life in the above quote, but he may as well have been referring to the hype surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT) and how it is going to create a new era of innovation in the semiconductor industry. I’m skeptical, and I will tell you why.

We’ve been here before
Let’s search back into our recent memories: Remember world changing “innovations” like “Web 2.0,” “Cloud Computing,” “Mesh Networks,” and “RFID”?

Technology analysts positioned these as revolutionary disrupters that would change industries forever. In reality, these were all evolutionary ideas (and in rare cases even actual technologies) that complemented existing ways people and business already did things. The hype may have made electronics and semiconductor vendors feel optimistic, but it certainly set unrealistic expectations for consumers and businesses, alike.

Looking today at Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2013 (courtesy of ZDNet), we see that IoT is more than 10 years away from being mainstream and is just entering the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 1.36.52 PM

Gartner defines the Peak of Inflated Expectations as the point where visionary companies adopt the technology and push it to its limits. Coincidently, it’s also the point where businesses make lots of failures trying to jump on the bandwagon, producing technologies, products and services with little market research and resulting in little market value.

IoT is at this peak of inflated expectation, resulting in a herd mentality in our industry (and other industries) that will invariably lead some companies over a cliff.

IoT is nothing new!
Here is my favorite photo regarding IoT. See anything new in it?

kurt1

I didn’t think so.

This picture is from the Garter Symposium ITXpo in October, courtesy of ZDNet.

What I point out to IoT hype believers is that each one of these markets has been going through an evolutionary process of digitization and wireless connectivity for years, and in some cases decades. The chart depicts the evolution of and concatenation of existing trends like mobile wireless communications, the “smart home” (X10 has been around since 1975!), digital sensors, and smarter microcontrollers.

Mingling an IPv6 address, a radio, and a sensor together to make something an IoT “thing” is not revolutionary. In some cases it’s common sense, in other cases it’s ridiculously stupid.

Is there a market for IoT devices?
When researching any new technology to predict its adoption rate, I like to understand the use cases for it. What pain does it solve? For whom? And how much is it worth to that person to solve her pain?

Some use cases I’ve heard for IoT from pundits are real doozies:

  • Milk been in the fridge too long? Starting to stink? That IoT sensor in the fridge will cause you to receive a phone text notification and start a workflow where the Google Shopping Express guy will bring you some more milk from Safeway. (Remember five years ago when that refrigerator-based RFID scanner would be able to tell when you threw the empty milk container in the garbage and automatically order a new jug? Never happened.)
  • Have trouble hitting a ball with your sports equipment? An IoT sensor embedded in your golf club, tennis racquet or softball bat can track each hit you make, determining things like where the ball hits the device, how much force you used, and how much spin you created. You can then go online to see the data, and maybe even figure out what to do with it. (This use case is real. Babolat offers an IoT tennis racquet.)
  • Are you a yuck mouth? Then Kolibree has a product for you! An IoT toothbrush that tracks your brushing habits in combination with your smart phone. You can even play games to help you improve your brushing. Kind of like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

Are users ready for IoT?
This is a big issue. All these connected devices means somebody has to figure out how to connect them to the Internet (probably through some wireless home gateway device) and ensure they can’t be hacked. Who wants to take on that challenge?

Not me. I’m already first line tech support for my extended family, and coaching my mother over the phone through the steps required to configure security settings for her wireless cable router is not my idea of productive family time.

What’s really scary to me is if these things are hacked. Imagine if hackers saw what “smart pills” you are taking and e-mailed that information to your boss, or girlfriend? Worse yet, what if they decided to take your new IoT insulin pump for a joy ride?

If Nieman Marcus can’t even protect the one-percenters’ credit card data, I’m certainly not going to trust myself to set my IoT device security properly. And I definitely can’t trust some device vendor to do it. (Security features costs money, but nobody wants to pay for it. Kind of like insurance.)

How to profit off of IoT
Even though I don’t believe the IoT hype, I still believe there are ways for companies in our industry to make money exploiting this trend. They key is to take a page out of Levi Strauss’ book: Don’t pan for gold. Sell jeans to the forty-niners.

Companies involved in wireless infrastructure stand to profit from IoT. I’m talking about vendors of wireless home gateways, micro- and pico-cells, and even the big iron servers and storage farms that have to analyze, display and store data from IoT devices. The technology required to do this for IoT is evolutionary, requiring tweaks to existing roadmaps and architectures rather than tons of R&D expense.

Who will be the losers? The companies on the far client side, the ones who actually make the IoT chips. There are two reasons for this:

First, there will be lots of experimentation over the coming years, and therefore a lot of failures. The sheer goofiness of the early IoT devices indicates that there is not a huge market need beyond how current markets and technologies are evolving. So those companies working on the edge to create sub-50-cent IoT chips will have trouble finding a “killer app” for their technology that is remarkably better that what is already evolving.

Second, did I mention the IoT chip price will have to be less than one dollar? Sure there may be billions of these made someday, but they’ll all be low margin and based on industry standards. In other words, commodities.

IoT: A rose by any other name…
Sorry to get Shakespearean again, this time from Romeo and Juliet, but one strategy is for current chipmakers to simply usurp the IoT moniker and position their current products as part of the IoT ecosystem. I’ve already seen this in automotive electronics and am sure it will happen nearly everywhere. Heck, “IoT” is only 3 characters.

At this stage I hope I have inspired you to be wary of the IoT hype and to critically assess any of your new product or technology plans with an eye toward market and customer needs rather than buzzwords. I may be proven wrong over the next five years, but I doubt it. Customer needs always trump marketing hype. Always.

SOURCES:
Definitions of Gartner Hype Cycle.
Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2013 and chart, courtesy of ZDNet.
Gartner Symposium ITXpo and photos.
Gartner Hype Cycle reports.



  • Timothy Reeves

    Things don’t need to be connected to the internet in order to collect data, of course. Why do I need to go online to see the data from my smart tennis racket? Have it transfer the data via Bluetooth. No need for it to be online.

  • Pingback: Semiconductor Engineering .:. Blog Review: Feb. 5()