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Connected Things 2016: IoT interoperability key to success

At the Connected Things 2016 event, experts highlighted the need for interoperability. Warning that disaster is on the horizon, they said it might be a good thing.

The Internet of Things is miles away from delivering the goods.

This theme echoed across presentations at MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge's Connected Things 2016 last week, an event that drew nearly 500 registrants.

"We've come a long way in doing great things, but it's cluttered, confused [and] chaotic," said Tom Coyle, forum committee chair. "We need to share knowledge better, get clarity on requirements, create elegant solutions and breakthrough capabilities, enhance security, interoperability and standardization, and use skillful marketing to combat clutter and confusion."

"IoT is a fad, unless it can begin to earn businesses money," said Linda Bernardi, former chief innovation officer of cloud and IoT at IBM. "However, IoT requires huge amounts of integration. It's not enough having components of technology; these things all have to work together. The reason IoT has been so difficult and taken so long is because it requires integration [and] adaptation."

Michael Chui, partner at McKinsey Global Institute, based in New York, said of the more than 200 IoT use cases his company researched, "roughly 40% on average -- in some cases, up to 60% -- of the value that can be unlocked [from IoT] requires interoperability."

There was a lot of talk about the need for IoT interoperability and integration, but will we ever get where we need to be? According to a man who was there at IoT's unofficial beginning 18 years ago, the Internet of Things will have to experience a few mistakes -- and perhaps even a few disasters -- to truly be successful.

Sanjay Sarma's take on IoT interoperability, security

During a "fireside chat," Sanjay Sarma, professor of mechanical engineering and the vice president for open learning at MIT, discussed the difficulties of IoT and gave a bleak outlook of the future.

Sarma and his MIT colleagues -- including the phrase-coiner himself, Kevin Ashton -- were instrumental in clearing the IoT path with their 1998 research efforts.

"To me, the Internet of Things is a design vocabulary," Sarma said. "The problem with a new vocabulary is it takes a long time to figure out how to use it. Unlocking value from new design languages, from new capabilities is exquisitely painful. And when it happens, it's miraculous."

Sarma explained how his daughter, in saying "I'll WhatsApp you my location," embodied a language that wasn't understood 15 years ago -- one that includes technologies such as atomic clock, GPS, cellular telephony, social networking and Google Maps. Sarma reminisced when the cell phone was created. "People said, 'Why do I need a cell phone? I have a cordless phone.' We can laugh now, but the possibilities that new things enable are very difficult to dream."

The dream -- and the up-and-coming tech-savvy workers of tomorrow who understand IoT's design vocabulary -- will disrupt companies, according to Sarma.

"1998 was very different from 2016," Sarma said. "1998 was still the era of the big companies. It was OK for them to shrug off new technologies and say, 'In good time.' 2016 is a much more brutal landscape. You can be Boston Cab and you don't know Uber is just around the corner, about to wipe out your very lucrative business. You could be Ritz Carlton; you don't know Airbnb is right around the corner ... Today, if I'm a big company, I cannot afford to ignore the crazy kid with the crazy startup company, because that's going to attack me much more rapidly because of the enabling technologies that kid has access to."

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Sarma offered the example of General Motors, saying they must be nervous nowadays, especially since startup Tesla California just got 300,000 preorders for its electric car, "which is basically a battery, an iPad and two motors."

"If you're GM right now, you've got to be questioning your whole strategy," Sarma said. "You've got to think about this design language and look at the sentence you can make with the design language. And if you aren't finishing those sentences and delivering the punchlines, someone else is doing it."

However, with so many companies in the mix, we seem to be entering the age of walled gardens, with every organization creating its own architecture and language for IoT.

Unfortunately, we only learn from our mistakes. It's easier to sell painkillers than vitamins.
Sanjay Sarmaprofessor of mechanical engineering at MIT

"It'll take a long time to resolve the walled-garden situation," Sarma said, recalling how it took the cell phone industry 10 years to get devices to operate across countries. At least now, he continued, we have the cloud to help people talk across walls.

Yet, Sarma suggested walled gardens may not be a horrible thing, "at least inside the walls it's secured." But that doesn't mean the future of IoT is safe and sound.

"I think we will have a few disasters," Sarma predicted. "We will see a couple of power plants go down, we will see a chemical plant go down ... they will get hacked into. I'm terrified of this."

"Security cannot be an afterthought," Sarma said. But how can it be fixed?

"Unfortunately, we only learn from our mistakes," Sarma said. "It's easier to sell painkillers than vitamins."

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