The Internet of Things (IoT): Is it soup yet?
The Internet of Things (IoT) is potentially a humongous market. A report from McKinsey & Company projects that the IoT will have an annual economic impact of between $3.9 and $11.1 trillion a year by 2025. But what is the IoT? McKinsey defines it as "sensors and actuators connected by networks to computing systems." That sounds an awful lot like the industrial controls market of yesteryear, but applied in more areas, and with fewer safety measures. That $11.1 trillion estimate, by the way, would represent roughly 11 percent of the world economy in 2025.
Are your market bubble and hype detectors going off yet? This skeptic's are, despite the phrase "beyond the hype" in the McKinsey report's subtitle. The firm breaks down IoT applications into nine "settings." These include human (wearable and ingestible); home (controllers and security, building on the old home automation market); retail; offices; factories (served for the last 40 years by programmable logic controllers and more recently by programmable automation controllers); work sites (mining and construction); vehicles (cars, trucks, ships, aircraft, and trains); cities (traffic controls, smart meters); and outside (railroad tracks, flight navigation, and so on).
Yes, that market is bigger than the connected LED light bulbs and thermostats available now, and smart refrigerators that ask Amazon Alexa to put milk on your AmazonFresh shopping list when your supply gets low (not yet available, but can it be far off?). Does anyone really believe that the IoT will be 11 percent of the world economy in a decade? If that's really going to happen, why aren't you getting rich now? There are many parts to the answer, but the IoT might not be a total pipe dream if done right.
Revenue, what revenue?
There's a lot of money going into the IoT market right now, but little is coming out. Certainly, IoT application developers aren't making much. We're mostly at the stage where big companies are throwing devices and control networks at the market just as old-world Italian cooks threw spaghetti against the wall to see if it would stick.
How bad is this situation for developers? According to a VisionMobile Developer Economics report published in July 2015, "as a nation [the IoT] is close to the poverty line. More than half of mobile developers (51 percent) and well over half those in IoT (59 percent) aren't making a sustainable income (less than $500 a month)."
Where's the action?
VisionMobile concludes that "interest in IoT is still focused on the smart home, but retail, industrial, and wearables are also attracting attention from developers keen to turn interesting ideas into profitable products. At the other end we find the Smart City, Connected Car and Medical fields aren't getting the same attention, despite high-profile deployments in those areas."
Too many standards
The standards problem in the IoT market isn't that there aren't any, but that there are too many. This is largely a result of too many vendor initiatives and not enough cooperation.
Here's a brief roundup: Thread is a 2014 networking protocol from Google's Nest group that uses the same radio chips as the relatively widely used (and recently hacked) ZigBee. Nest claims that Thread has security and low-power features that make it better for connecting household devices than Wi-Fi, NFC, Bluetooth, or ZigBee. What distinguishes Thread from ZigBee? Mainly its use of a new protocol called IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks, or 6LoWPAN.
AllJoyn is an open-source protocol from Qualcomm, which was donated to The Linux Foundation in 2013 and is managed by the AllSeen Alliance, which has enlisted Cisco, Microsoft, LG, HTC, and others as members. It's essentially a tool set for using IoT over Wi-Fi.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Intel, Atmel, Dell, Broadcom, Samsung, and Wind River formed the Open Interconnect Consortium in 2014 to compete with Qualcomm (whom many of these companies don't trust, even though Qualcomm has said publicly it won't profit from AllJoyn) and collaborate with the open source community. And then there's the 2014 Industrial Internet Consortium, founded by Intel, Cisco, AT&T, GE, and IBM, with the goal of developing standards specifically for industrial use of the IoT. The why of this one escapes me and many others in the industry, because industrial programmable logic controllers and their networks go back to about 1970.
The 2015 IoT news is from Amazon's Alexa, Apple's HomeKit platform, and Google's Brillo operating system. There are actually a few HomeKit devices available now. But it took manufacturers over a year to bring them out, because Apple insisted that they use Apple-certified communications chips from Broadcom, Marvell, or TI, and HomeKit firmware before Apple would even put their products through its certification process, which is rumored to be onerous.
The Apple side of the HomeKit delay story was about security, but Apple also forbids direct device-to-device communication over the HomeKit protocol without an Apple device as intermediary, and it only supports Wi-Fi networks. Given the ubiquity of Wi-Fi and iOS hacking tools, the question in my mind isn't if HomeKit will be cracked but when.
HomeKit is certainly not the only IoT technology with potential security issues. In fact, most of them have real security issues. Hack your car? Oops, yes. For the Full Monty, read the 92-page Black Hat paper.
ZigBee? Not only has it been "pwned," but you can also clone the KillerBee ZigBee attack framework and tools from GitHub. Thread? Well, if ZigBee is toast, Google has its work cut out to keep Thread from succumbing. Like HomeKit, I think it's mostly a matter of time before it falls.
The skeptic's view
I'm not saying that you should run away from the IoT as fast as you can. But I am saying that you need to approach it with your eyes open and your hype detector turned up to maximum sensitivity.
And don't quit your day job. Right now, unless you're both lucky and smart, IoT software development won't even keep you in peanut butter and jelly.