The future of IoT: 5 major predictions for 2021

Forrester research predicts big network connectivity chaos, proactive healthcare engagement through wearables and sensors, and smart office initiatives for the return to the office.

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Image: iStock/Oakozhan

It remains unclear when offices will reopen, if remote work will become standard, along with other common lifestyle practices that dramatically changed during the coronavirus pandemic. But the factors that necessitated a swift digital transformation and the accompanying machinations were merely coating the surface. Looking at how our work lives will change, Forrester released its Predictions 2021: Internet of Things (IoT) on Wednesday. 

In 2021, according to the Forrester research, market growth will be driven by healthcare, smart offices, location services, remote-asset monitoring, and new networking technologies.

New IoT use cases throughout different environments and geographies are being created from the growing range of networking options, including satellite, cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the US.

With those new IoT use cases will be "significant momentum" in 2021, such as capturing patient health data from wearables and healthcare devices, enhancing the employee experience in smart offices, and extending the deployment of remote monitoring for connected machines.

It's a little "big brother"-ish, but consumer or employee location data will be used as essential to deliver "compelling, convenient" experiences. Today, only 23% of brands trigger consumer engagement using locations.

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Healthcare: In what Forrester describes as "network connectivity chaos," a much larger variety of wireless connectivity will be accessible by consumers in 2021. Instead of using 5G for mobile and IoT devices, research predicts wireless technologies will reveal overlapping value: Bluetooth, Zigbee, and near-field communication (NFC) all address similar IoT use cases. For long-distance connectivity, low earth orbit (LEO) satellites provide an option (Currently, more than 400 Starlink satellites deliver satellite connectivity; Amazon and China are investing in this space). CBRS introduces new private 4G or 5G cellular networks to the US.

In 2021, Forrester expects adoption of 5G and Wi-Fi technologies to be slower than in 2020 as organizations sort through the market chaos and that interest in satellite and other lower-power networking technologies will increase 20%.

Smart offices: Certainly COVID-19 continues to globally plague, and the research predicts that connected device makers will double efforts for healthcare. But COVID-19 forced many of those who were ill to stay at home or delay necessary care. This has left chronic conditions unmanaged, cancers undetected, and preventable conditions unnoticed. 

"The financial implications of this loom large for consumers, health insurers, healthcare providers, and employers." Forrester's report stated. There will be a surge in interactive and proactive engagement such as wearables and sensors, which can detect a patient's health while they are at home. Post-COVID-19 healthcare will be dominated by digital-health experiences and will improve the effectiveness of virtual care. The convenience of at-home monitoring will spur consumers' appreciation and interest in digital health devices as they gain greater insight into their health. Digital health device prices will become more consumer friendly.

The Digital Health Center of Excellence, established by the FDA, is foundational for the advancement and acceptance of digital health. A connected health-device strategy devised by healthcare insurers will tap into data to improve understanding of patient health, personalization, and healthcare outcomes.

Remote assets: Many employees' current work situation has them situated somewhere in their home, but smart office initiatives to transform the employee experience will be considered. Expensive corporate real estate will be a thing of the past; 48% of decision-makers anticipate a higher percentage of permanent remote workers as a result of COVID-19. Forrester expects at least 80% of firms to develop comprehensive strategies for future offices, which include IoT applications to enhance employee safety and improve resource efficiency, such as smart lighting, power, energy, environmental monitoring, and sensor-enabled space utilization. Activity monitoring in high-traffic areas is necessary to prioritize site cleaning, manage congested areas, and modify the office layout for social distancing.

Location services: Connected machines will finally disrupt traditional business. Consumers have been reluctant to connect to connectable machinery that industrial original equipment manufacturers (OEM) have been selling, but COVID-19 changed that: As manufacturers, distributors, utilities, and pharmaceutical firms switched to remote operations, they began connecting previously disconnected assets. Few will unplug their machines in 2021.

Customers who found regular visits from their OEM's engineers mandatory will enjoy the convenience of machines that call home for help, which means remote experts will no longer have the burden of expensive travel and avoid protracted downtime as they walk through repairs.

Field service firms and industrial OEMs in 2021 will now connect machines and meet customers' demands, rather than trying to convince customers to sample new connected services.

New networking technologies: As is the case with many technologies and artificial intelligence (AI), gathering data will be critical. Essential to convenience will be consumer and employee location data. Because of COVID-19, locating customers and employees is important to deliver convenient employee and customer experiences, i.e. social distancing. The days of "the cable repair person will be there between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m." are long gone. Even the four-hour window is severely narrowed for delivery services, which can provide customers with precise time slots, thanks to location. This specificity has raised customers' expectations in 2021: People are fed up with lining up to get into shops and their doctors' offices. They'll want to take a number and return when it's their turn.

Brands must use location (via virtual queues, curbside pick-up, and check-in) to generate convenience. Brands can't "go solo," especially if they don't have an app, because they don't have access to the location or a customer's permission to use it. There will be a dependence on third-party tech partners to assist in using location data, in addition to a third-party source of location information that consumers trust and control.

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