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The Internet of Things is coming. But not anytime soon.

The Internet of Things is coming. But not anytime soon.

The excitement around the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow, and even more bullish predictions and lavish promises will be made made about and on behalf of it in the coming months. 2015 will see us reach “peak oil” in the form of increasingly outlandish predictions and plenty of over-enthusiastic venture capital investments.

But the IoT will not change the world in 2015. It will take at least 10 years for the IoT to become pervasive enough to transform the way we live and work, and in the meantime it’s up to us to decode the hype and figure out how the IoT will evolve, who will benefit, and what it takes to build an IoT network.

Let’s look at the predictions that have been made for the number of connected devices. The figure of 1 trillion has been used several times by a range of incumbents and can only have been arrived at using a very, very relaxed definition of what a “connected thing” is. Of course, if you’re willing to include RFID tags in your definition this number is relatively easy to achieve, but it doesn’t do much to help us understand how the IoT will evolve. At Ovum, we’re working on the basis of a window of between 30 billion and 50 billion connected devices by 2020. The reason for the large range is that there are simply too many factors at play to be any more precise.

Another domain where enthusiasm appears to be comfortably ahead of common sense is in discussions about the volume of data that the IoT will generate. Talk of an avalanche of data is nonsense. There will be no avalanche; instead we’ll see a steadily rising tide of data that will take time to become useful. When building IoT networks the “data question” is one of the things architects spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about. In truth, the creators of IoT networks are far more likely to be disappointed that their network is taking far longer than expected to reach the scale of deployment necessary to produce the volumes of data they had boasted about to their backers.

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Even the question of who will make money out of the IoT, and where they will make it, is being influenced too much by hope and not enough by common sense. The future of the IoT does not lie in the connected home or in bracelets that count your steps and measure your heartbeat. The vast majority of IoT devices will not beautify our homes or help us with our personal training regime. Instead they will be put to work performing very mundane tasks like monitoring the location of shipping containers, parcels, and people. The “Industrial IoT” which spans manufacturing, utilities, distribution and logistics will make up by far the greatest share of the IoT market. These devices will largely remain unseen by us, most will be of an industrial grey colour, and only a very small number of them will produce data that is of any interest whatsoever outside a very specific and limited context.

Indeed, the “connected home” is going to be one of the biggest disappointments of the Internet of Things, as its promoters learn that the ability to change the colour of your livingroom lights while away on business doesn’t actually amount to a “life changing experience”. That isn’t to say that our homes won’t be increasingly instrumented and connected, they will. But the really transformational aspects of the IoT lie beyond the home.

There are two other domains where IoT will deliver transformation, but over a much longer timescale than enthusiasts predict. In the world of automotive, cars will become increasingly connected and increasingly smart. But it will take over a decade before the majority of cars in use can boast the levels of connectivity and intelligence we are now seeing in experimental form. The other domain that will be transformed over the long-term is healthcare, where IoT will provide us with the ability to monitor and diagnose conditions remotely, and enable us to deliver increasingly sophisticated healthcare services well beyond the boundaries of the hospital or the doctor’s surgery.

Gary Barnett

But again, we are in the earliest stages of research and experimentation and proving some of the ideas are practical, safe and beneficial enough to merit broader roll-out will take years and not months. The Internet of Things will transform the way we understand our environment as well as the people and things that exist within it, but that transformation will barely have begun by 2020.

Gary Barnett is Chief Analyst, Software with Ovum and also serves as the CTO for a non-profit organisation that is currently deploying what it hopes will become the world’s biggest urban air quality monitoring network.

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