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IoT World 2016: A conference of connectivity and confusion

At IoT World, it was a flurry of Internet of Things' potential and platforms paired with an overwhelming sense of confusion and questions with few answers.

At the IoT World 2016 conference, there was a real sense of energy and excitement about the potential for the connected...

device ecosystem to change the world. Over 12,000 attendees, a packed exhibit hall and full keynote sessions highlighted the momentum that the Internet of Things is driving.

It was also confusing. Apps, devices, sensors, cars, software, services, antennas, networks, electronics distributors and many other aspects of the IoT ecosystem were all competing for attention in ways that often times seemed at odds with each other. It was harder to figure out what to leave out of IoT than what was included. To be fair, the IoT space is really this complex -- which is a big part of the reason that adoption is lagging hype by a significant margin.

There were a few themes that kept repeating throughout the event that may indicate a bit of where we are and where we are heading in this market.

It's early days

In many ways, IoT World reminded me of cloud computing conferences in the 2009-2010 timeframe. Then, as now, there were a lot of vendors pitching their visions and few customers actually committing and demonstrating successful deployments. Many commented that it felt very much like a "vendor fest" and that the conference sessions were mostly sales pitches from sponsors. There were exceptions, of course, with a few interesting client case study discussions including one on precision agriculture from Lane Arthur, director of information solutions at John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group.

In the past it was about being bigger, stronger and faster -- now we're trying to build (machines) smarter.
Lane Arthurdirector of information solutions, John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group

In a side discussion with Arthur, he talked about how Deere has been integrating IoT into its equipment to improve crop yields and efficiency on the farm. With a combine harvester containing as many as 75 sensors wired to a satellite-connected navigation platform, IoT is taking the guesswork and human variability out of the equation. "We want our machines to be best in class and this is a way to get there," Arthur said. "In the past it was about being bigger, stronger and faster -- now we're trying to build them smarter."

Platforms, platforms and more platforms!

By some tongue-in-cheek estimates there are over 300 IoT "platform" solutions in the market today. Not all were being exhibited at IoT World 2016, but many were and others were being discussed. From PTC ThingWorx to IBM Watson IoT to C3IoT and many more, there was no lack of platforms in play. Some of these platforms, like Greenwave, are designed as part of a consumer "connected home" play. Others, such as C3IoT, are focused on specific capabilities including IoT analytics in verticals like energy and manufacturing.

Differentiation is going to have to be part of the story. Rob Patterson, VP of product marketing at PTC, commented that "IoT platforms need to move past core connectivity and management to applications, data models and compelling experiences such as augmented reality." Will it be enough?

One thing was clear: The sense was that there is not enough of a market to sustain so many competing platform providers with their unique standards, APIs and business models. Most expect the next few years to see a significant consolidation in platforms as the larger players start to dominate the market. Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google, IBM and others are betting big on this market. That spells possible trouble for scores of smaller providers that are going to have to fight for the scraps these giants leave behind.

Securing the Internet of Things

There were lots of comments throughout the conference about the need for comprehensive security models and implementations to keep our IoT infrastructure safe. When IoT moves past sensing to controlling other systems, it becomes even more critical. Autonomous driving is an obvious concern if the sensors and control systems become compromised.

According to Loic Bonvarlet, product marketing director at Gemalto, there is a deep need to "secure the system from the device level and up" and to ensure that "devices can be uniquely identified in a non-reputable manner."

Other themes

Several attendees of IoT World 2016 commented on how most of the show was focused on point technologies and solutions and very little was being discussed on business models and driving value from IoT, though this came up occasionally in vendor briefings. Most of the business value conversations revolved around efficiency, lowering costs and increasing responsiveness as opposed to how IoT creates new sources of revenue.

There were also comments about the explosion in connectivity options and the need to manage complexity in these environments -- something that is both a threat and an opportunity for integrators and vendors to solve.

The future is connected

While it is early days, it's clear that we have reached an inflection point where the intersection of connectivity, sensor technology, data and cloud computing is enabling the transformation of many industries and sectors of our society. There are too many vendors, too much noise and hype, and too few success stories to claim victory at this point, but all of this is starting to change.

The promise of IoT was summed up by Kevin Eggleston, SVP of social innovation in the IoT business unit at Hitachi. "The strategy created by [Hitachi's] founder was to make a difference in society, and IoT holds more ability to impact standards of living, health and safety than any other technology revolution we have seen."

Next Steps

Making IoT security a reality

More on IoT platforms: Relying on local intelligence and time for productization

Dig Deeper on Internet of Things (IoT) Strategy

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What takeaways did you get from IoT World 2016?
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IoT is a frustrating term to work with. It's not a market. (How can something which spans consumer products, heavy industry, and smart cities be treated as a single market?) It's not a technology. It's not an open source project.

I prefer to think of IoT as a very high-level pattern, involving sensor/actuator nodes, event flows, cloud-based applications, and end user access to the applications. Beyond this generic characterization, we need to get much more specific. My area of interest is Smart City IoT, which involves specific markets and business models, asynchronous (near real time) flows, integration with open data, and FedRAMP compliance for privacy and security. But this is radically different from personal health device IoT or connected cars. Bottom line: when people talk about "IoT", ask them to get specific as quickly as possible.
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