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The IoT industry is broken, but can it be fixed?

A new book co-authored by wireless expert Dr William Webb takes a look at what went wrong with the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things Myth was co-written with veteran tech Analyst Matt Hatton. It starts a decade ago, when the first effusive predictions about IoT being the next big thing started in earnest. Those predictions proved to be well short of the mark and the book attempts to explain why, while seeking to learn from the many mistakes made to suggest how to get IoT back on track.

We spoke to Webb (remotely) and started by asking him how IoT has measured up to the original hype. “Badly,” said Webb. “The message from 2010 was that by now we would have 50 billion connected things. It’s more like 11 billion and most of those are in the home and office, not in smart cities, manufacturing or other often mentioned areas. The world has not been changed for the better through IoT.

“There are many reasons why IoT has disappointed but perhaps the most important was the view that IoT would be like cellphones – make a good device, tell the customers they can buy it and stand back to avoid the rush. IoT is nothing like that, those who buy IoT rarely want just devices, instead they want complete solutions. Few companies can deliver these alone but even fewer were willing to acknowledge this.”

One of the more recent forms IoT hype has taken is its association with 5G, despite the fact that the latest cellular standard offers little new for it. We asked if that was part of the problem. “The original proponents of 5G evangelised a system that could do everything – connect people at higher data rates than ever and things at higher densities than ever. But IoT was dropped out of the standards process early on – 5G has no IoT provision.

“Unfortunately, nobody told the marketeers who continue to wax lyrical about the number of things that could be connected. Well they can’t – because 5G doesn’t have IoT capabilities beyond evolving 4G’s NB-IoT and because we can’t even manage to connect enough devices to tax 4G’s capabilities. Even worse, this just causes more confusion – as a user should I wait for 5G before deploying my IoT solution? What will it even look like?”

Webb has plenty of form as a wireless industry sceptic, which is why it’s fun having him on the Telecoms.com Podcast, but we wondered if he could see any hope for the IoT industry despite its many missteps. “Yes, it can be fixed and it needs to be fixed,” said Webb. “IoT is more important than ever in resolving the problems we all face, not just pandemics but climate change, and aging population and more.

“We hope that by exposing the myths and failings from the last decade that companies will start to act more collectively, more collaboratively and understand that without a complete end-to-end solution nobody benefits. Of course, this is not an easy fix – if it were it would have been done long ago. It will take time.”

We concluded by asking if IoT will ever be the new cash-cow the telecoms industry has long hoped it would be. “No, at least not for the communications industry,” said Webb. “Looked at across the whole value chain including the producers that can be more efficient, the reduction in prices that end consumers see, and so on, it can generate enormous value. But that is diffused across a very wide base. Great for the economy but less good for an investor in a given sector. It is still an opportunity, but perhaps a good one rather than a great one.”

While Webb’s somewhat pessimistic outlook for IoT might depress a few telecoms industry insiders, it can hardly surprise them. It has been clear for some time that IoT is a very complex B2B sell that few, if any, telcos have the in-house capability to do effectively. The jostling for position across all industries for IoT ascendancy is likely to last for a while yet and there’s no guarantee telecoms will emerge at the top of the pile. You can buy The Internet of Things Myth on Kindle and paperback via Amazon now.

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2 comments

  1. Avatar K Figueredo 21/04/2020 @ 4:49 pm

    There was a debate in the late 2000s on whether the strategic aspiration should be 50bn (an easy number) or 60bn (mobile subscribers x 10). A Nortel study projected devices in the trillions. When Ericsson’s 50bn projection emerged in 2010, it included PCs, mobile phones and fixed line/IP phones among other categories. This acted as an anchor for the analyst community. The rest is history.

    The number of connected devices is a relatively easy metric to forecast and count. The same is true for the volume/velocity/variability of data transmitted. Both categories have a passing relationship with IoT value creation.

    The mobile industry’s IoT problem is that mobile connectivity represents a sliver (sub 5%) of the value potential. There are ways to magnify the potential of connectivity which should, in any case, include devices that supply or use data via other media.
    Some of the ideas involve: platform/digital ecosystem business-models (see Marshall Van Alstyne, Simon Torrance et al.); industry-wide collaboration through open-standards higher up the value stack (see oneM2M and 3GPP); and, service innovation that builds on smart (trusted) approaches to data sharing (e.g. TfL data store and the more ambitious TfWM/Zenzic/ConVEx national data marketplace).

    William is right about the enormous potential of IoT. That potential is within reach. However, it requires the supply-side eco-system to approach the challenge differently, re-balancing the emphasis away from counting things.

  2. Avatar Altaf Ahmad Khan 22/04/2020 @ 3:35 pm

    There are few points.
    Earlier generation could also support IOT but not with spectrum and battery power efficiency.
    There are more spectrum and battery power efficient newer technologies like NB-IOT , LPWAN etc but this required a brand new eco system development.
    Not to mention here mere sideline developments without active participation of Telecom operators and vendors desired results can’t be achieved.
    Its a matter of harnessing vertical markets segments for which exclusivity can’t work.
    It’s all inclusive eco system development by taking all other socio-economic sectors on board l.

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