by JD Sartain

Will the Internet of Things Become the Internet of Broken Things?

News Analysis
Apr 17, 20145 mins
AnalyticsBig DataConsumer Electronics

Fifty billion devices will connect to the Internet in the next few years. It's up to vendors to make sure they do, in fact, connect to the Internet -- and provide reliable data, security and customer experience. Otherwise, analysts warn, the future may bring an Internet of Broken Things.

Cisco Systems estimates that the number of devices connected to the Internet will reach 50 billion by 2020. This brings promise for users, corporations and vendors but also a major challenge: What happens if this Internet of Things (IoT), all 50 billion of them, morphs into the Internet of broken things?

In other words, how will vendors ensure that these devices are compatible? Who will be responsible for guaranteeing this compatibly? If a device breaks, who will fix it? And does everyone even want total connectivity in the first place?

Interop, Security Main Challenges Facing Internet of Things

“Overcoming these challenges to interoperability is somewhat of a double-edged sword,” says Ryan Martin, associate analyst at Yankee Group. “On one hand, standardization could further market penetration, as well as the breadth and depth of IoT solutions. On the other, it means relinquishing control and, therefore, leverage over a given ecosystem.

As a result, Martin says, we’ll more likely see mergers, acquisitions and partnership activity before we see the influence of cross-industry, technical standards.

Gartner Vice President Hung LeHong agrees, saying it’ll be a long time before we reach universal compatibility — if ever. Today’s marketplace “competition,” he says, centers on delivering middleware, portal and gateway aggregators that can take in multiple types of connections.

A variety of vendors is involved, from telecommunications firms and cloud providers to retailers and hardware and software vendors. (PTC’s acquisition of ThingWorx stands as evidence that software vendors are interested in the Internet of Things.) “No one entity will win all areas,” LeHong says.

Maciej Kranz, vice president of the corporate technology group at Cisco, points to security as a top concern as well, especially as assembly lines and oil fields are connected. Three years ago, the Stuxnet virus spread havoc in industrial environments, and cyberattacks on other areas of critical infrastructure are also on the rise.

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The creation of “new paradigms,” such as smart cars equipped with ethernet and federally mandated backup cameras, bring about a variety of concerns, Kranz says. These include preventing hacks, malware and DoS attacks on in-car operating systems, as well as verifying the source of vehicle-to-vehicle communication data.

Preventive maintenance also matters, Kranz says, especially when data analysis, remote data monitoring and management of devices, sensors and applications all takes place in real time. If an average oil rig generates 5TB of data per minute, how can vendors and corporations ensure that critical data is communicated to the appropriate device if, say, the temperature exceeds a critical threshold? It’s also imperative to ensure that the policy and data flow can scale between, say, a fleet of 100,000 trucks.

Design, Quality, Reliability Will Convince Customers

In a recent Forrester report, The Internet of Things Comes Home, Bit by Bit, analyst Frank Gillett notes that it’s not a foregone conclusion that everything will be connected to the Internet or have an active sensor.

Indifferent users still outnumber the fans, Gillett says. Both U.S. and European consumers express mixed attitudes about these new technologies; the majority has no desire to adopt remote home monitoring or appliance control. Home energy and security solutions top the list with the pro-Internet of Things crowd, but overall interest still wanes for the majority. “Consumers don’t want a smart home,” the report says. “They want a smart product to solve a specific problem.”

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LeHong says the Internet of Things will exist, to some degree, even if it’s just a smart meters or thermostats in the majority of homes in developed economies. It just might take well more than five years to get there, too. Groups, businesses and individuals will reject the idea for privacy reasons, but those consumers will always have the option to buy things without sensors. Not everything that can be connected, technologically speaking, will be connected — sensors will appear in things when it makes sense commercially, socially and for the greater public good.

As market leaders realize the importance of ease of use, Martin says consumers will likely see an ongoing and concerted effort to deliver on the promise of simplified content delivery platforms. In the long run, anything that’s short on quality, user experience, reliability or security will adversely impact a company’s brand equity.

“Devices with embedded connectivity will ultimately pervade every household — yet it’s the extent to which (and when) such advancements become both readily available and widely utilized that’s in question,” Martin says. “Fortunately, for consumers and enterprises alike, the value of connected services — and IoT, for that matter — will only improve over time.”

Cisco is working with the industry to solve these challenges, having recently announced a joint architecture with Rockwell Automation to improve IoT security and the IOx platform for processing data “as close to the source as possible,” Kranz says.

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“We’re moving analytics to the data instead of data to the analytics,” Kranz says, adding that the Fog Computing architecture on which the IOx platform sits “gives customers the ability to host third-party applications at the edge of the network.”

LeHong says he’s “all for” the Internet of Things — provided, as stated, that it makes sense commercially, socially and for the greater public good.

“There’s much value in it,” he says. “As a former engineer, I appreciate the industrial productivity gains that will be possible. As a consumer, it will be awesome to know which parking spots are free as I go into the city.”