The Internet of Things (IoT) — the trend of integrating sensors into everyday objects, which communicate data to computer systems and make decisions for us based on that data — is tipped to be a greater disruptive force than the Internet itself. According to research published this week, the IoT is expected to grow at 26% Compound Annual Growth Rate. Its potential, in changing the basis of competition, redrawing industrial boundaries and creating a wave of disruptive companies cannot be understated, and is one which promises to unlock many benefits from a consumer perspective. So how do we move from a concept branded by Gartner as the “the most over-hyped technology in development today” to technological ubiquity?
Despite the many concerns around privacy and security, a recent poll by IoT Nexus found that interoperability was seen as the biggest challenge to widespread deployment of the IoT. It is unfortunate that consumers still must choose between different devices, with different operating systems, different formats, and different standards. But such single mindedness on behalf of industry is flawed. Companies must work together to avoid a fractured, siloed internet; if only for their own benefit. Research by McKinsey suggests that 40% of the value of the IoT will need to be unlocked via interoperability. For the IoT to truly thrive, walls must come down – interoperability lowers barriers to innovation and is fundamental to the creation of participation.
So what is the standard response to interoperability? Well, standards. Every major IT company wants to be at the forefront, and a swathe of tech companies have endeavoured to come up with their own set of standards, from Microsoft-backed AllSeen Alliance to the Open Interconnect Consortium, backed by Intel, Samsung and Dell, and the Thread Group , with support from ARM and Google’s Nest. A push for industry wide interoperability and open standards would make sharing data far easier and accelerate widespread IoT deployment. Not so long ago, the internet itself was once considered a revolutionary way to share information. But before it could expand beyond its initial uses as a military and university network, its builders had to agree on certain frameworks, such as Internet protocol addresses and hyper text transfer protocol. In a similar way, a set of universal protocols for the IoT would encourage wider adoption and greater innovation.
Of course standardisation brings risks: if systems can link up and share data, they are no longer single-vendor and tightly controlled systems, opening them up to vulnerabilities. Equally, the reverse perspective is that interoperable, open systems allow those vulnerabilities to be found and fixed quickly. This could pave the way for practitioners to work together to apply several pairs of eyes to the problem, and even design in security and privacy from the start.
But it’s not just all on industry. In order to get the IoT get from here to there, policy makers must also play a guiding role. As technological barriers decrease and adoption of the IoT takes off, its potential benefits depend in part on how law-makers and regulators respond to this technology. The IoT’s status as an emerging technology necessitates policymakers to take a proactive role as a critical partner to industry. Stepping in to protect consumers when needed – such as through the EU’s general data protection regulation to ensure robust privacy measures – and also allowing industry to innovate.
Undoubtedly, the IoT poses a potential regulatory minefield – once machines start to gather data rather than humans, multiple watchdogs and regulators won’t be far away. Take smart meters for example – great for reducing energy use and shrinking bills, but potentially requiring layers of supervision. In the case of the UK, as well as the obvious oversight from Ofgem (the energy regulator); Ofcom (the communications regulator) may also want to get involved because the data is going over a broadband connection. Then, because of the data itself, the Information Commissioner’s Office is bound to have an interest. Finally, given the European Commission’s Energy Union proposals, when that data starts to cross national borders, we encounter the challenge of a lack of harmonised security and privacy standards applied across countries yet having multiple regulators involved. Such challenges require a particularly proportionate and focused attitude.
Clearly, the IoT offers real solutions to major social problems, but this vision of a fully connected world will not be achieved without the right initiative and leadership from industry and policymakers to promote its deployment and avoid the pitfalls along the way.