Are we now allowed to obsess about something other than big data? According to Gartner, maybe. The consultancy declared in August that the Internet of Things (IoT) had overtaken big data in its 2014 Hype Cycle report.

Never mind that that is a bit like deciding who’s ahead in a race between conjoined twins (that’s a discussion for another time). The rise of IoT in the hierarchy of hype makes this a good time to take an honest look at the state of the current Next Big Thing.

The Economist made a good observation earlier this year in its Babbage blog that is worth quoting at length:

Devising sensors and algorithms to handle the front- and back-ends of the IoT are the easy part.… These unglamorous middleware issues of standards, interoperability, [and] integration … are going to take years to resolve. Only when they are will the IoT have any chance of transforming society in a meaningful way. That day is a long way off.

This sounds right to me. Standards, interoperability, and integration are all parts of the plumbing. The plumbing isn’t fun. Protocols aren’t sexy. Worse still, arriving at agreements on them can be much harder work (diplomatically and engineering wise) than developing the front or the back end.

But a basic premise of IoT (or at least its sales pitch) is that everything is supposed to talk to everything. So good plumbing isn’t just important, it’s fundamental. It’s what defines this brave new world. And yet we are still years away from the day when my oyster fork can talk to my mop.

That’s not to say that no progress is being made in this arena. A number of standards and interconnection groups have sprung up to foster oyster fork–mop conversations, including: the AllSeen Alliance, the Thread Group, the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC), and the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC). But we need to look hard at who started these groups and when.


The M2M Devil is in the Details …

Notice that all of these grandiosely named organizations are less than a year old. True, another group—the IPSO Alliance of ARM, Ateml, Ericsson, and several niche players—has been promoting the use of the Internet Protocol (IP) for M2M since 2008. But even the biggest players in that group are not industry leaders. The companies that truly matter for making the Internet of Things happen only started getting their collective act together to work on interoperability in the last 12 months.

So, a comparison from the WABAC machine: IPv4, the backbone of today’s Internet gestated for seven years, from 1974 (when an IEEE paper first described it) to 1981 (when the memo detailing it came out). And that was without any other competing standards in the mix. Does anyone really believe that protocol agreement with the IoT will take less time? (And do those who nodded their heads to the last question get a lot of banking requests from Nigeria?)

Speaking of the IEEE, it does have a working group focusing on a standard for an architectural framework for IoT, P2413. But it didn’t start work until three months ago (July 2014). The IEEE effort to harmonize standards within one architectural framework will take some time and ugly standards fights could erupt in the interim.

… and the Details aren’t talking to One Another

Now look at the composition of those IoT groups. Too many important IoT majors belong to only one of these different groups. Worse, industry rivals are in different groups. Intel helped launch the OIC and the IIC while rival chip-maker Qualcomm helped start AllSeen and ARM helped found Thread. Competing Korean conglomerates Samsung and LG are in the OIC and AllSeen, respectively. Sure, the focus of these shiny new interconnection groups doesn’t overlap much—for now. But even at just a fraction of face value of IoT’s hype, it is too big for this to remain the case forever. The high stakes involved make fights over IoT standards a near certainty.

IoT is a Prize worth the Fight for Incumbents

Gartner projected in 2013 that IoT would be worth $1.9 trillion by 2020. Put another way, IoT potentially represents one dollar of extra value and output for every $50 produced by every man, woman, and child on the planet in 2013. With that much at stake, it’s simple to predict that the big IoT vendors will try and engineer some kinds of vendor lock in. Even if an effort and lock-in only influenced one 10,000th of the IoT market, that would still be worth $190 million by Gartner’s reckoning. Ask Microsoft if licensing lock-in is lucrative.

Yet seizure of different portions of the commanding heights of IoT by eager incumbents may be the least of our worries. In my next post, I’ll add to the mound of thoughts on IoT security and explore if IoT security is even a realistic expectation.

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