I’ve been working on IoT projects since before the Internet of Things became a buzzword. From the beginning, as we were connecting equipment and processes for the first time, we knew we were onto something big.
And big it is. Billions of devices are already connected to networks, and every day millions more are added. Researchers estimate that by year 2025, 20 to 80 billion “things” will be connected, with trillions of dollars in potential value.
Yet, I am not happy with the IoT progress to date.
After more than a dozen years on the IoT journey, the industry is still just beginning to gain momentum. Don’t get me wrong. There are thousands of successful IoT implementations across nearly every industry. For the most part, however, they have focused on incremental improvements mostly by streamlining existing processes to improve productivity or increase profitability.
So why haven’t we seen an explosion of radical transformations, creating new opportunities for people and businesses on a large scale?
In part, IoT’s potential for business transformation has been hindered by several key factors:
In many industries, IoT is often implemented in core business environments and critical infrastructure, making managers wary of radical, large-scale changes. Introducing new technologies and processes can be risky. The upside might bring leapfrog improvements in productivity and profitability—but the potential downside could result in upheaval and chaos throughout the value chain. As a result, organizations often pursue small, low-risk IoT projects or wait until they are ready to install a new assembly line to make it IoT-enabled.
Experienced workers, as indispensable as their know-how is, can also act as a barrier to IoT adoption by advocating traditional approaches that worked for them in the past. And then there remains a long-standing cultural divide between IT and Operational Technology (OT) organizations, which must collaborate at the technology, architecture and even organizational levels to deploy IoT and realize ambitious ROIs. Such collaborations are still fairly infrequent, with joint security architectures as the typical starting point.
Fragmented Markets, Standards, and Ecosystems
IoT is not one market but a collection of markets and submarkets, each with its own set of often competing ecosystems. Many have long-standing traditions of custom solutions, overlapping proprietary or semi-proprietary standards, vertical integration, and limited partner ecosystems—all of which can be barriers to innovation. On top of that, most IoT deployments are in brownfield environments, where new IP-based IoT technologies must integrate with multiple legacy and vendor-specific systems.
A host of standards bodies and consortia are trying to bring order to all of this, but agreeing upon a cohesive set of standards has proven difficult. In manufacturing automation for example, there are a half-dozen ecosystems centered around different standards bodies. Increasingly though, vendors, driven by customers and peers, are beginning to converge key entrenched standards. The industry is also evolving horizontal standards such as Ethernet or IP to meet IoT requirements, including motion and even safety applications.
Immature ecosystems also hamper IoT adoption. Too many vendors are still trying to do it alone, or with just a few entrenched partners. Delivering business-relevant solutions to line-of-business managers requires partnerships of horizontal, vertical and geography-specific specialists, large and small.
Doubts about security can kill an IoT deployment even before it gets off the ground. IoT security has to deal with systems that are more distributed, more heterogeneous and more dynamic than traditional IT environments. For years, “security by obscurity” provided an illusion of impenetrability of OT environments. If you’re not connected to anything, no one can break in. But by its very nature, IoT is connected, so businesses are starting to adopt an architectural approach and best practices (such as patching, segmentation and role-based policies) that incorporate security into every aspect of a deployment and operation.
Device makers, especially consumer-focused ones, have been the Achilles heel of IoT security. These vendors have often viewed proper security implementations as extra cost, complexity, and time to market burdens with unclear payoff. But recent high-profile IoT security breaches painfully underscored the downside of leaving rudimentary vulnerabilities, such as default names and passwords hard-coded into these devices.
The good news is that after years of under-investment, the security industry is finally focusing on IoT security standards, interoperability and certifications.
The Drive to Transformation
Despite these barriers to massive adoption, we are beginning to see some early examples of new value propositions, new industries and new business models made possible by IoT.
Take new value propositions, such as mass customization and personalization. With IoT and automation, customers can order a car, a suit or just about anything else, and it rolls off the production line made to order at a cost close to the mass-produced goods. For example, Daihatsu Motor Company is using 3D printers to offer customers 10 colors and 15 base patterns to create their own “effect skins” for car exteriors.
IoT has also emerged as a foundational capability that, combined with machine learning, fog computing or blockchain, is creating brand new industries such as autonomous drones. IoT is also a key force behind the convergence of existing industries such as transportation and technology, and retail and manufacturing. And the collaborative, connected nature of IoT is ushering in new business models such as the “co-economy,” based on dynamic ecosystems of partners and customers that bring together their complementary strengths to deliver co-created solutions.
These and many other brilliant glimmers of IoT’s value show what’s possible. As frustrated as I am by the level of IoT impact to date, I am confident the same ingenuity that connected all of these devices will soon allow us to break through the cultural, market and security barriers that have hampered IoT progress. Until that happens, let’s roll up our sleeves and keep working on getting IoT to deliver on its tremendous promise.
This article first appeared in Forbes.