It’s routine to hear about “the next big thing in tech” every few months. Internet of Things (IoT) is the latest hot technology to be cited as industry changing, and in this case, it’s a prediction that could come true. Here’s what you need to know about IoT.

IoT defined

One challenge of any new technology is defining what it actually means. While “cloud” and “Something-as-a-service” are cute and catchy, they’re non-specific. IoT fits squarely in that category, and if you ask a dozen people, you’ll likely get a dozen nuanced definitions of what IoT actually is.

From a basic, technical perspective, IoT is a collection of connected devices that have local sensors, data storage, communication, and compute capabilities. This broad definition includes everything from a sophisticated smartwatch to a sensor on a streetlight that communicates the light’s status over a mobile network.

Those who come from an industrial background, where sensor-equipped devices have existed for decades, might wonder what the big deal is related to IoT. From a hardware perspective, it’s mostly about cost, standardization, and connectivity. IoT sensors have reached commodity pricing, and near-ubiquitous cellular connectivity have made it possible to procure IoT “sensors on a chip” en masse, rather than requiring expensive, custom products.

IoT is not about the hardware

Just as cloud computing is less interesting than its possibilities, IoT is about much more than connected coffee makers and smartwatches. The prime benefit of IoT — and where IT leaders should focus their energies — is about the product and service possibilities with connected devices.

An excellent example of the emphasis on services is the Nest thermostat. Nest’s connectivity and mobile apps are interesting; however, some people speculate that selling customers’ heating and cooling data to utilities companies will be more profitable than the thermostats. This would make Nest a data company that has a side business selling well-designed hardware.

The wrong IoT strategy

Many companies and IT leaders already consider themselves ahead of the IoT curve, having embedded connected sensors in many of their products. They’re diligently capturing and storing data, but many have yet to leverage the data to create interesting new capabilities and revenue streams. This process does need not be difficult, or require complex computing capabilities in the device.

For example, a Cub Cadet lawn mower I recently purchased includes an IoT sensor in its hour meter – it’s the equivalent of an odometer for most heavy equipment. The sensor does nothing more than report the total hours of engine time to a mobile app via Bluetooth. The app reminds the owner when it’s time to perform routine maintenance, and offers links to purchase supplies directly from Cub Cadet, presumably increasing their parts sales. The “intelligence” resides largely in the app, which can be updated and enhanced without requiring the consumer to modify their mower.

If your focus around IoT is on the sensors, you’re focusing your energies in the wrong place. Consider how you might disconnect the hardware from the services. It’s okay to start embedding sensors in your products before figuring out the full suite of services you want to offer, as long as you’re able to update the sensor, or follow Cub Cadet and Nest’s paths and report the data now, and determine how to derive a product later.

The next frontier in IoT

Most current IoT applications rely on the device reporting data to a service layer, which then analyzes and acts on the data. The next frontier in IoT is leveraging the local compute and storage capabilities of the sensor, and communicating with other IoT devices to make decisions about how to act.

An obvious example is connected vehicles, where rapid, highly-localized information is critical. If my car hits a patch of ice and then shares that information with the vehicles behind me, it’s significantly more useful than reporting the information to a central service, which must then process and disseminate the data.

How to start using IoT in your organization

The easiest way to start with IoT is to leverage your company’s existing sensor-equipped products. Delve into the data these devices may be logging, and consider how your company or a third party could glean insight from the data. Consider how a user, or another device, might be able use those insights, and you’ll be on your way to developing new products and services.

If you don’t have existing IoT sensors in the field, separate the hardware track from the product track, and focus on getting the hardware out sooner rather than later, even if your services are undefined. With careful product design and by leveraging existing data resources, you could ultimately reach the Holy Grail of IT leadership and produce revenue-generating assets.

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