It’s difficult to come to a broad assessment concerning IoT adoption, given the sheer range of projects and technologies involved under the umbrella technology that is the Internet of Things — spanning sensors, gateways, CPUs and networking technologies. Studying IoT thus tends to reveal paradoxes or seeming contradictions, perhaps because the term itself tends to be vaguely defined. “IoT is really nothing guys. It’s a made up term. It’s a hype term,” said James Brehm, founder and chief technology evangelist at James Brehm & Associates at Sensors Expo. “It’s not a market. It’s not a technology. It’s a cluster of multiple things,” he explained, before adding that his boutique analyst firm focuses on the technology full time.
But there seems to be a consensus that IoT adoption in 2018, by and large, continues to be gradual. Why is that? At last week’s Sensors Expo in San Jose, two panels of experts — analysts, consultants and technologists weighed in on the issue.
1. Adoption Assessments Vary, and So Do Analogies
Many experts tend to use an array of analogies to illustrate either the current state of IoT adoption or a potential outcome. There is, for instance, the idea that current IoT adoption roughly mirrors computer adoption in the 1980s, when the Commodore 64 ruled home computing, PCs arguably didn’t become mainstream until a decade later. “With the Commodore 64, you had to really want to get a computer, and you had to have [a baseline of] knowledge to use it,” said Dave Smith, chief technology officer at Multi-Tech Systems in a panel discussion at Sensors Expo.
Brehm floated the idea that, for all of its promise, the IoT industry could face a dot-com-like crash. Security, interoperability, device management, onboarding, and provisioning and roaming settlement continue to be problematic in many IoT projects. “If we don’t get those things right, [IoT] will be one of those things that implodes, and then we move on to the next buzzword,” Brehm said, before adding that the technology does have real promise across vertical markets.
2. To Win with IoT, First Know Thyself
One can study esoteric subjects such as mythology, but doing so is a waste of time if one does not understand oneself, argued the Classic Greek philosopher Plato. The same principle applies to IoT, said Robbie Paul from Digi-Key Electronics. “The best thing you can do is to understand yourself. You have to look at your business and what you’re trying to do there whether you have a certain reduction goal or whatever,” said Paul, who is the director of IoT business development. Once it is clear what the business goal is, those managing an IoT project should understand their pricing model for the project. Once an organization has a precise idea of what it wants to accomplish, they can use that information to identify technology and potential partners.
Organizations should have a clear sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are to move forward. “One of the things that I'm seeing is, it really depends on where a business is starting and what types of capabilities they have in-house,” said Curt Ahart, IoT leader at Digi International. On one end of the spectrum, some companies are willing to buy discrete components and software, and build a solution from the ground up. On the other, there are companies better suited for an off-the-shelf solution. “Unfortunately, a lot of times today, you end up with nothing is available yet that will quite meet your needs,” said Dave Smith, chief technology officer of Multi-Tech Systems Inc.
While understanding how technological pieces of an IoT deployment work and integrate, organizations that ace technology can still end up with failed IoT projects. “In fact, I think the ones that end up being successful are the ones that know the least about the technology and are the most business driven,” said Robbie Paul. “They’re not afraid to partner up with others and bring a solution together.”
3. (Simple) Track-and-Trace Projects Gaining Adoption
Many IoT projects in use today are track-and-trace initiatives. Many focus solely on answering the age-old question “where’s my stuff,” but don’t monitor the condition of goods in shipment, said James Brehm. “They don’t take that track and trace [functionality] and then integrate a temperature sensor — or a pressure or humidity sensor — into it that could let them see if a good is damaged or whether it got wet in shipment, and whether they need to ship another group of those.”
Most companies with track-and-trace initiatives don’t have holistic IoT initiatives, Brehm said “They’re not looking at it for the benefit of IoT. Most of them don’t even think about it as an IoT project. What most of them are thinking is: ‘I need to connect to the asset’ or ‘I need to track something.’”
4. For Many Projects, IoT Delays Are the Rule
There is a subset of distinct applications, like track-and-trace deployments, where IoT technology is simple to deploy. But a significant number of IoT projects still take longer to implement than anticipated. In April, McKinsey published a blog stating that many IoT projects are stuck in “pilot purgatory.” For many organizations, the technological hurdle of assembling a variety of technologies and getting them to work cohesively is less of a challenge than taking a proof-of-concept and scaling it to the production scale. “It might take six months to build an IoT PoC, but a total of 18 to 24 months to get the product to production,” Paul said. Many organizations underestimate the time it takes to move to commercial deployment, which can include field testing, getting certifications, cybersecurity and so forth.
“The biggest thing we need to look at here is how and why are companies trying to move from a one-time-sale to the long-tail experience,” Brehm said.
There is often a fine line separating a delayed IoT project from a failed one. Brehm said roughly seven out of 20projects fail — ”they grind to a halt within two years,” he said, citing his firm’s research. Many IoT initiatives look still like “science projects,” Brehm added. “It's not pre-packaged solutions that we’ve got out there. [These projects] can take a lot of time to put together.”
While some pundits and vendors claim the majority of IoT projects fail, Ahart doesn’t buy it. The majority of IoT projects don’t fail; they are late,” he said. “They eventually get there, and there may be bodies along the way, but it's hard — just like any other type of IT, or product development. Things take time.”
5. There Are Many Places for IoT Projects to Get Stuck
There is a spectrum of Internet of Things goals in the enterprise landscape. On one end, there are companies that have broad technology-based aims. At the other end are companies that have a narrow goal such as improving the efficiency of a given machine. But many of Multi-Tech Systems’ Fortune 500 customers have a goal somewhere between those poles. “Their IoT initiatives might have specific goals, but those are often at a business level for certain productivity enhancements, efficiency improvements or new capabilities,” Smith said. “And where they fall down is in taking that next step. And figuring out what to do with it. They know that they have a goal, but they have no way of getting there. A common mistake is they start looking really low, they go: 'Oh, is this LORA radio going to do it for me, or NB-IoT?' They get bogged down in the bits and the bytes, and they never make any progress. And that's mostly what we see in some of these large organizations. They grind to a halt because they don't know what to do.”
6. Need for ‘IoT in a Box’
There are some 28 million small businesses in the United States and 18,500 large enterprises. In the IoT world, the latter gets the most attention. One reason why is that small companies, unless they are tech-savvy startups, are unlikely to launch a bespoke IoT project. To capture this market, tech vendors will need to build ready-made “in-a-box” solutions, Brumer said. In this vein, Sprint recently launched its IoT Factory with the intent of democratizing IoT. Currently, however, such product offerings are few and far between.
Brehm had a similar take on the matter, stating that midsize and large companies deploying IoT have little option but to deploy bespoke projects. Companies with 100–500 employees interested in building custom IoT solutions will often start with an IoT platform. Such companies often enlist the help of small system integrators. “The big SIs of the world don’t want to play with anybody who is not a Fortune 1000 company.”
Competition is fierce among tech companies aiming to get a slice of the Fortune 500 market, with companies ranging from Microsoft, SAP, HPE, Amazon, PTC and Dell all aiming to get a chunk of the market.
“We are probably two, three or four years away from having a mass of pre-productized solution,” Brehm estimated.
7. Improper Expectations Are Common for IoT Projects
Senior management tasked with looking after IoT projects often fail to set proper expectations, said Steve Brumer, partner at 151 Advisors. In his consultancy practice, Brumer recommends senior managers focus first on the needs of their end users and then work backward toward the technology. “If we don’t get the end-user piece down, solve the problem and establish what the ROI is going to be, what the data component is you’re looking for,” the project is not set up to succeed, Brumer said.
8. Surprise! Security Is Still a Central Challenge
“[Cybersecurity] is definitely one of my top three buzzkills for the [enterprise and industrial IoT] industry,” Brumer said. “The second thing is education,” he added. The two are intertwined. “We're not educating the world about security issues, integration issues and some of the problems we are facing in being able to get to the 50 billion IoT devices or whatever number the soothsayers come up with,” Brumer added.
One challenge is that it is rare for a single entity to take ownership of cybersecurity. “Who’s the throat to choke? It’s not the carriers. It’s not the security group. It’s not the distributors. It’s not the product manufacturer,” Brumer said. And most companies can’t afford to enlist the help of a highly-paid consultancy to help them oversee security.
One challenge is that many companies deploying IoT PoCs give short shrift to security until they are focused on rolling it out to the production scale. A project “can get pretty far [within an organization] with minimal security,” said Paul. Nevertheless, interest in IoT cybersecurity is building given a growing number of hacks with an IoT component. But addressing the problem isn’t easy. “It’s a systems’ issue,” Paul said. “There are hardware and software angles and that you have to look at protecting data in transit and data that is stationary. That requires a variety of strategies.”
Like IoT itself, there are few one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to IoT security.