Understanding the IoT business environment

Last updated:January 2017

Editor's note

Before wading too deeply into the waters of enterprise IoT, it makes sense to get some depth soundings for the marketplace overall. It may be early days for IoT, but there are already platforms and technologies with significant market traction and records of success.

On the other hand, anyone with a good grasp on the current state of IoT and the IoT business can't help but notice that there is much that is still entirely up in the air, including which sorts of wireless data transfer protocols and topologies are best for which sorts of applications. There are still plenty of questions about how companies with no experience in deploying digital products are going to navigate through the turbulent process of evaluating and adopting the platforms they'll use to create and manufacture the "thing" part of the equation.

Even with the prevalent uncertainties, there are some clear directions and certainly there are some strategies that are more likely to bring success than others. Here's our guide on the IoT business environment, exploring the companies that are shaping the industry, current and future market trends, and how organizations are thinking about their strategic opportunities.

1Industrial IoT business is booming

IoT has enjoyed a number of outsized growth predictions, and the industrial part of the IoT picture has rightfully enjoyed its fair share of the rose tint. Accenture estimates that IIoT could add $14.2 billion to the economy by 2030; General Electric says investment in it will reach $60 billion in the next 15 years. You can probably just run with your wild-eyed figure of choice and be as close as anyone, but in any case it seems safe to say that IIoT will drive productivity and economic growth like nothing else, perhaps even since the industrial revolution.

Where industry is concerned, of course, control systems are nothing new. There's a good argument to be made that these control systems were IoT before there was IoT, but then again these systems didn't leverage their sensor capabilities beyond the immediately local control of valves and switches, all within inherently closed systems.

The onslaught of new, more reliable, more capable and even considerably cheaper sensors means that more is known about process and machine status at all times, plus the stream of information that the manufacturing floor generates has meant that fine-tuning and iterative improvements to production processes are fully in reach.

2It's not about the 'things,' it's about the data

The ultimate value of self-driving cars, smart thermostats and automated factories lies not in the benefits of each individual sort of thing, even if that first-order value is considerable. Rather, the revolutionary aspect of the shift to IoT is in the holistic experiences that groups of these devices can connive together to create. The things, as Neil Gershenfeld famously put it, begin to think.

Things don't literally have to "think," of course. But they do have to be parts of ecosystems that can make sense of all of the data streams that pertain to a certain context or situation. That ecosystem, we have come to believe, is built with a combination of sensor-laden but compute-constrained endpoints, preliminary edge-based processing, and a cloud system that both analyzes and archives the relevant parts of each data stream.

The growing dependence of things on their data streams creates enormous and interesting challenges for those engaged both in data centers and in analytics. We're only just beginning to get an inkling of how inventive we'll need to be in order to make sense of our own digital shadows.

3IoT: Business as usual?

In the end, it's hard to imagine that just about every kind of business will be affected by IoT in some way or another. But some industries have key challenges that have it particularly easy for them to justify various early adopter IoT business deployments.

Healthcare, for example, has expensive equipment that tends to move around within hospitals and care facilities. The entire purpose of much of this equipment is to gather data about individual patients and send it to a centralized system for analysis. Equipping new generations of these various monitors and imagers and so on with connectivity -- plus integrating them with existing identity management infrastructures -- has been a path with obvious and immediate rewards.

4Get your IoT business off the ground

While things are indeed starting to "think," it's also clear that they won't do the strategic planning parts of our jobs anytime soon. Having a vision for where your organization is heading with IoT involves planning and finding a longer-term trajectory across several different domains.

It may seem obvious that an enterprise will want to pick a platform for its IoT business endeavors, but there are literally hundreds of things in the marketplace that vendors have decided to call platforms. Nor is it clear that one platform, even if very comprehensive, is enough. The choices here remain thorny, complex and are likely to have implications well into the next few quarters, if not years.

Having a platform or even having a product that uses that platform is not the same as having a viable business. Therefore decisions must be made -- with less-than-perfect visibility -- about how IoT can help make your business money.