Hyped as the next boom in the electronics and IT industries, the Internet of Things (IoT) was predicted to cause storage and Big Data expansions like nothing we'd ever seen, with all of the computing, programming and administration to go with it. Whole industries would be rejuvenated, from health care to food delivery, and we'd have computers watching our every action to “improve our lifestyles” and, incidentally, the bottom line.
This should be year zero of the great expansion, but, frankly, it's hard to see much real action. Cars are smarter, and they can report home, but that's hardly new. We do have “driverless” cars, usually with a nervous-looking human poised to takeover if the computer fails, but that's not really IoT. It's not a whole lot of sensors inputting data to a cloud.
Health care has shown much sign of change. Yes, we can detect diseases using microchips, but who has had a test like that in the doctor's surgery? The reality is we are making advances, but the healthcare industry is very conservative, especially if the innovations threaten income, as many do. (Those chip tests could be run in a pharmacy or at home!)
The problem, across the whole of IoT, is proving sufficient benefit, a pressing need and economic viability.
A recent example, the iWatch, was a bling too far and is floundering in the market. Perhaps we are soured on gadgets after a decade of cell-phone gee-wizardry. We want our purchases to actually be useful and so hype about unneeded tests at home, for example, resonates about as well as the electronic toilet that's been on sale for 20 years.
I'm not putting down all the dedicated scientists trying to get automated diagnosis working. If I ran a country, I'd be pushing funding for earlier results, because it can impact quality of life, and more importantly the cost of health insurance. A growth in sensors in medical contexts is inevitable, and while a sizable business it is just a piece of IoT.
Let's take smart refrigerators. They are new, so they are expensive. They don't yet do enough to mandate a change-out by the nouveau riche and, anyway, where do you get food kitted with sensors? We are looking at a change-out based on the typical 12-year use cycle for durable goods. Most consumer segments of IoT look to have slower growth profiles than all of the hype leads us too.
Retail will be an area where strong efforts are made to look at sensed information, but the sensors are built into web pages in the mobile marketing segment and don't create any hardware demand. Mobile is the future of retailing so expecting a cash-constrained business to dive into IoT solutions looks less attractive than just going online.
Technology is a sore point, too. Various warring factions have defined different protocols and interfaces as proposed standards for the industry. Having neglected to add even simple security protections, these groups are now in a re-evolution of their work to make IoT safe as well as usable. But four or five incompatible standards do not make for the stable base needed for rapid growth. Could you imagine if the DVD business had had five formats?
With many sensors opting for a wireless connectivity, we are left with the problem of getting power to them. Batteries are not adequate … there'll be a lot of dead sensors lying around. Wireless charging is still in its infancy, so the power issue really remains unsolved today.
All of this adds up to a combination of slow ramp and not-quite-ready-yet for many segments of the IoT spectrum. Is it inevitable? Some of it is, but clearly not all. From a logistics viewpoint, I think the electronics industry should discard the hype and look segment by segment to find and assess real opportunities.
These opportunities will grow over the next decade. Cancer diagnosis in 2025 should take 10 minutes and be done at home. The same will be true of most infections. That is surely worthwhile and just as surely going to happen. Better sensoring in assembly equipment clearly adds value. The point is to pick carefully where to invest, whether as a microchip vendor, a distributor or a module maker.