THE BLOG

Business at the Dawn of the Internet of Things

04/29/2014 12:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2014

When the Internet of Things (IoT) was first being conceptualized in the 1990s, the idea was little more than a dreamy notion from technologists. The vision involved connecting every physical device to the web for purposes of real-time tracking, which would allow computers to gather data without human intervention. Everything from your toaster to your refrigerator and car could be counted and connected to provide notifications for need of replacement, recall, or even repair in a scheme designed to reduce cost, loss, and waste.

Adoption of the IoT as an inevitability also begins to create new business for technology companies as other key markets approach the slowdown caused by saturation. Consumers and the general public may not even be aware of the beginning of the IoT or consider it a potential reality, but hardware and software manufacturers are already seeing its economic value for their industries.

"The IoT presents two significant opportunities for wireless technology companies," said Kent Huffman, Chief Marketing Officer for BearCom Wireless, a global wireless dealer and integrator and Motorola Solutions' largest channel partner. "One is to provide the necessary device-to-device connectivity. The other, which is obviously larger, is to develop end-to-end solutions. For example, Motorola is already talking about how retailers can use wireless connectivity in asset tracking, loss prevention, video management systems, energy management, and electronic price labels. But deploying and managing multiple infrastructures adds complexity and costs. Motorola's WiNG 5 wireless local area network and analytics solution is one effort to bring a range of technologies together in a single, unified system. There will be plenty of others as the market more clearly defines the problems it needs solved."

Numbers from Cisco prove that the IoT is no longer simply conceptual. The network hardware provider estimates that approximately 80 new "things" are connected each second to the web. The company has even created a Connections Counter where the uninitiated can virtually watch the birth of the IoT. Current projections from firms like Gartner are that more than 50 billion objects will be hooked up to the net by 2020, which is a significant acceleration from the present 10.5 billion. Global adoption of the IoT concept will, eventually, lead to the estimated 50 to 100 trillion connections.

Of course, creating what amounts to a global neural network requires more than a basic connection. The delivery of relevant data for analytics and predictions requires the installation of sensors on devices being linked to the IoT. Before your refrigerator can send you a text that you are running low on milk, a sensor is needed to take a measurement. These are being installed in appliances, electricity grids, homes and offices, production facilities, natural resource supplies, vehicles, recycling operations, and networks for tracking logistics.

All of that means new business. In fact, Cisco's analysis predicts an emerging market of up to $19 trillion. Those figures are, undoubtedly, why Zebra Technologies just recently purchased Motorola's enterprise unit for $3.5 billion dollars. In an interview with ZD Net, Philip Gerskovich, Senior Vice President of Growth Platforms for Zebra, described the emerging market and functional reality of the IoT and how it drove the acquisition.

"Zebra believes the Internet of Things is going to be a critical force in the future enterprise workspace," Gerskovich said. "And Motorola's enterprise unit provides the mobile force, through rugged enterprise devices, which will be a catalyst for IoT adoption. Zebra hopes that taking on these mobile assets will secure its place as a leader in IoT deployment for enterprises in the future."

Because connectivity to the web is increasingly wireless and involves two-way communication, the IoT creates an almost unprecedented opportunity for companies like BearCom. CMO Huffman describes the IoT's growth increase partly as a product of the fact that digital radio and wireless technologies are cheaper and easier to implement than physical cabling without the ongoing costs of cellular service, and adding network capacity is simplified when not relying on wired or cellular systems.

"BearCom and Motorola are working with one global manufacturing customer that tells us that at just one of its plants, between 8,000 and 10,000 internal text messages are sent every day," Huffman said. "These include everything from information about routine maintenance to man-down alerts. All kinds of data can be sent to digital two-way radios, and those devices are becoming easier and easier to integrate with smartphones. Despite all the advancements in smartphones, radios still have clear advantages in plenty of scenarios. They're more durable, last longer, are simpler to use, and less expensive to operate."

Huffman predicts the fastest growth of the IoT will come from organizations that have greater margins delivered through efficiencies and have a cultural sense of urgency and dependency on analytics, which suggests transportation, retail, petrochemical, and manufacturing. IoT beneficiaries, however, will also include small to medium businesses that will be able to draw up data sources previously unavailable in order to acquire important analytics, which have the potential to dramatically lower their costs. A few analysts even believe physical products will approach a zero price point as a result of the IoT, which is, in fact, what has happened with information.

As the IoT era dawns, we can expect integrated and networked devices to recognize our personal profiles and context for our present situations, tailor information to provide products we actually need, and even anticipate our desires, which, collectively, forever changes our lives and the world in which we live.

How we sustain privacy, security, and prevent corruption of data will determine the quality of life as the IoT expands.