IoT skills, deployment lagging behind expectations

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Because I am teaching a project class in ubiquitous computing this quarter, I was struck by a post on the BPI (Business Performance Innovation) network discussing the results of a survey they conducted along with Nerdery and the Internet of Things Institute that states while industry does genuinely wish to adopt IoT strategies and deployments, they’re not happening as quickly as their enthusiasm might make it seem.

I can’t say I’m surprised by this. The most striking statistic as one reads through the report is that “…just 1.5 percent of executives at large companies say they have a clear vision with implementation well underway, while another 57 percent are either beginning implementation, have pilots underway or are committed and in the planning stages.” It’s the ‘clear vision’ aspect of this that is truly telling, especially when paired with the rest of the sentence. Immediately the question that presents itself is ‘If only 1.5 percent of executives have a clear IoT vision, how is it that 57 percent can be at various stages of design and/or implementation if they don’t?’

One clarification: In my class, and for the purposes of simplicity, we use Ubiquitous Computing and Internet of Things (IoT) interchangeably, however they’re not quite the same and I do let my students know that. The IoT is a subset of the concept of Ubiquitous Computing, the platform on which it’s enabled, similar to how the Internet is the technical foundation on which the Web operates. With that out of the way, the one issue I run into more than any other in this course is the belief of a small contingent of students that it should be a programming course, that they should be learning how to program sensors and the IoT protocols and whatnot. What I explain to them is that anyone can buy a book on how to program for the IoT; what they can’t buy is a book on how to think about the IoT. Like all technologies, IoT technologies can’t, as I tell them ad nauseum, be developed in a metaphorical vacuum. The technical issues of networking, the pragmatic issues of security and privacy, the enterprise issues of data collection and management, as well as many others, all must be considered as well when developing and deploying IoT strategies. After all, they’re not called strategies for nothing.

The second most common issue that comes up in this course is the question of what exactly the Internet of Things is. What defines it? What separates it from the regular Internet? Is that not an Internet of Things as well? How are they delineated? And where does ‘The Cloud’ fit in to all of this, if at all? Is that part of it? As is the case with all definitions, it can often depend on who you talk to. generally, in my class we define it terms of its low-power devices (sensors being the big ones) and lightweight protocols. However even in that case there can be disagreement and confusion. Do we need to make those delineations? The Internet is the Internet, yes? Do we need to divide it into TWO Internets, one for regular electronic devices and one for low-power sensors? What about our phones? Our TVs? They may be using Bluetooth but they certainly are not low-power, lightweight devices. And while this post isn’t meant to be about the technology per se, there are no fewer than twenty different protocols that can call themselves IoT protocols which has almost immediately led to standards overload. The image below gives and idea of this, although it contains both lightweight IoT as well as heavyweight regular networking protocols and where they fall in the TCP/IP stack.

Some IoT and non-IoT protocols

Some IoT and non-IoT protocols

And here’s this, for good measure, since we’re long past this moment in terms of the IoT. I rail against this all the time, but it never ceases to happen (and you should all read XKCD anyway):



True to this idea, The Technology Partnership in the UK states it should be called the Internet of Sensors, not the Internet of Things, since the Internet has always been an Internet of Things. A valid point, in my opinion, but then there’s also this. Let’s make up our minds, people!

And that brings me back to my introductory statistic. The linked article above has the following quote: “In my view, far too much attention is focused on getting the ‘Things” connected and not enough time is spent understanding the data insights that will actually drive the business forward.” That’s exactly right. Everyone is trying to figure out how they’ll get ‘things’ connected and get sensors out there and have an IoT strategy, but to what end? They’re so busy thinking about doing it that that they’re not thinking about why they’re doing it, what it all means, or if they need it, or how it will impact their business, or how it might impact their customers not just in terms of, say, improved customer service but also in terms of privacy and data collection and retention / distribution.

It’s important to take a step back and consider the gestalt of the IoT, and all the concerns and considerations that go along with it. It’s not a programming exercise; that’s just one low-hanging leaf on a vast tree of issues. I would hope that some people would be willing to take a step back for a moment, away from the headlong rush to have an ill-defined IoT strategy or deployment, and simply consider what it all means. We can all rush forward after that.

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