Did the IoT Just Clear a Major Hurdle?

May 10, 2016 • Roger Gregory

It’s official. IoT is now a cliché.

Most folks agree that the Internet of Things (IoT) dominated the Consumer Electronics Show this year. And IoT got top billing at the Mobile World Congress as well. In fact, an explosion of “things” and devices and proofs of concept and IoT initiatives are on display at every big technology event (even the recent RSA security conference), and “IoT” nomenclature is tacked on to every imaginable application: clever air conditioners, connected cars, smart kitchen appliances, robobankers, smart shoes, chatty sunglasses, you name it.

But in spite of the perpetual hype cycle and the proliferation of novel “things” crowding the headlines, the IoT in its current form is still largely comprised of isolated islands of technology and nowhere near enough ecosystems of value. This year’s Forrester analysis noted that IoT “standards are nascent, as vendors are only a couple of years into the process of creating general-purpose interoperability.” And a recent Fortune essay about IoT opined that, “most big-name brands are still leaving the big questions about establishing an ecosystem of standards and data ownership models unanswered. This means consumers might buy a few connected products that won’t ever be connected to each other.”

This isn’t to say that “there is no there, there.” Promising strides have been made in IoT evolution, industrial use cases are maturing and analysts and investors are starting to dive deeper and ask better-formulated questions about applicability, extensibility and security. But the IoT conversation thus far has been driven by device makers and semiconductor teams. That conversation needs to expand exponentially. The most tremendous opportunity at the moment is being able to demonstrate how to achieve less fragmentation through interoperability, simplifying interfaces and securely connecting data between different solutions—transforming those islands into healthy ecosystems of value. It will enable operators to confidently interconnect the best ideas as a service for consumers, who will be able to pick and choose amongst an assortment of offerings and easily manage those selections. When that whole process is as functional and intuitive as selecting and downloading apps from an app store, then the IoT will have truly arrived.

Similar but Different

But speaking of the app store model, I don’t think that’s precisely the way the IoT will come to fruition. Everyone is by now familiar with “App Fatigue” and the need to alleviate all the human management necessary just to get our existing technology to do what we want it to do. What we need is all the simplicity and functionality of the model, with none of the effort. For consumer applications, that sweet combo is just starting to gain ground.

The example that immediately springs to mind stems from that increasingly popular wireless speaker/voice-command device and its cloud-based self-service APIs. Amazon’s Echo and its Alexa virtual assistant allow users to play music, adjust a thermostat, dim lights and perform tasks from over 100 other “skills”—all through pretty straightforward voice control. There’s no need to swipe, tap or touch. While that is nifty enough to address the “effort” side of IoT functionality, the real potential to be mined is in extensibility and the ease with which third parties can add functionality. Using simple IF THIS, THEN THAT channels or more complex ‘context-aware’ commands, users can easily connect various “smart” devices to Alexa, deploy premixed command “recipes” and add new skills to their virtual assistant’s repertoire. Combined with a platform that can integrate the various IoT communications protocols (ZigBee, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc.) into a standard language, the model opens the opportunity for IoT providers to easily deliver voice-controlled functionality to the consumer pretty much across the board—it can facilitate that much-desired system integration and be used to make devices and services coordinate in a way that’s actually useful to the people using these “things.” And that right there is the spark of a healthy ecosystem of value.

To be clear, the Alexa example doesn’t answer all of those “big questions” and it isn’t the only (or even the best) route available to do so. Combinations of myriad other existing IoT hubs, devices, platforms and APIs can be leveraged to achieve the same functionality. But this example does illustrate a major advance in IoT service on-boarding and interoperation. It needn’t take an eternity to perfect ease-of-use, promote integration and grow healthy IoT service ecosystems. Alexa is just one use case proving this point; and that point is a major leap.