The IoT Is Alive And Well

Rumors of its lackluster growth appear to be company- or segment-specific.


There has been a lot of grumbling lately about the IoT and how it has failed to live up to expectations. But the problem may be less about the success of the IoT than the ability of any group of chipmakers and manufacturers to capitalize on its success.

The IoT has been growing steadily since the term was first coined by Kevin Ashton, who began using RFID inside of Procter & Gamble to manage its supply chain. He moved from there to MIT to develop open standards for making RFID ubiquitous. The idea caught on in a very big way, which is why we are still being bombarded by predictions of humongous numbers of things being connected to other things with some or no human interaction.

It’s hard to state the case for billions or trillions of things. The numbers vary so widely that it’s hard to tie any credible projections to them. What is apparent is that the companies that predicted that all data would move from devices through gateways to the cloud for processing were wrong. Just taking streaming video data from automotive sensors, there is no data center big enough to process all of that information. And it’s impossible by any means to move that data back and forth fast enough in such large quantities to add even a glimmer of sanity to this idea.

That doesn’t mean cloud-based operations are a bad idea. Cloud computing is exploding right now, but not because it’s processing all of the data generated by sensors. The model of dynamically provisioning servers for workloads is enormously more efficient than leaving servers idling while workers go home for the night or the weekend. And it makes it possible to deal with spikes in demand, such as online ordering around the holidays or streaming videos at certain hours of the day or certain days of the week.

Behind all of this, the Internet of Things and its various permutations, such as the industrial IoT, are growing steadily. Wearables continue to lag because there is no killer application yet, such as the sensors that promise to measure heart irregularities well before the onset of a heart attack. And the home market has been slow to take off, partly because it’s too hard to set up home networks with all of the different protocols, and partly because there is no compelling reason why anyone has to monitor their laundry from their smart phone. But there are big efforts underway by companies like Apple, Samsung, Amazon and Google to change those perceptions, including some nods to better security so hackers can’t gain access to home networks.

Fig. 1: Early (circa 2015) depiction of the IoT wearables market. Source: Yole Développement

Still, the problem may be less about the number of things and more about how they are classified. The tech world is slowly coming to an understanding that the IoT is not really a discrete market. It is an infrastructure of sometimes diverse technologies that in many cases are customized for specific applications. The big challenge is how to “mass customize” these technologies, and it’s way too early in the development of these technologies to figure out where the commonalities will be as various groups of people and things take advantage of this new infrastructure.

Nevertheless, comments that the IoT is not living up to expectations are misleading. The IoT is very much alive and well. But there is no single IoT market and, at least at this point, the benefits are not concentrated in the hands of any giant systems companies. That makes the growth of this market much harder to gauge and quantify, and enormously frustrating for marketers who saw big dollars for devices that could be developed once and sold in millions or billions of units.

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