Finding the value in IoT (hint: it ain’t the technology)

Credit: Montri Nipitvittaya /

“Calling something the IoT, the ‘Internet of Things,’ simply means you haven’t found the value in it”. So said Mark Gregory, senior economist with EY, at the recent Great Telco Debate. Others, including Marcus Weldon, President of Bell Labs, echoed the sentiment. Indeed, as Weldon says of the state of the telecoms industry, “We are below a commodity, we are a human right”. We need to find value.

Once again the technology industry is in danger of believing that technology is the answer, no matter what the question is. We invest blindly in the next big technology, chasing a dream of blindingly fast, ubiquitous connectivity which will save the world from all ills.

5G is no different. What, you have to wonder, comes after 5G? – 6G, 7G? It reminds me of the great Victor Borge sketch where he laments the person who had a dream about a world-beating fizzy drink. He invented 1Up, 2Up, 3, 4, 5 and 6Up. And then gave up and died penniless. Someone else, he said, got lucky and invented 7Up. So close, but yet so far.

Gregory also pointed out (quoting economist Robert Gordon) that the Internet does not improve productivity. At least, not yet, said Weldon, who went on to talk about latency and milliseconds and believes that we will need to go from global to local distribution to solve the problem. Once we have solved latency the true value of connectivity will be released.

While the terms IoT and 5G might be rubbish definitions, there is value emerging. It is emerging largely as a result, as we have said, of it moving beyond a ‘horizontal’ technology thing that we choose to call the IoT, to an arena specific thing, for instance the Internet of Education, the Internet of Healthcare. Our rubbish term will shortly disappear, just as the PC market “disappeared”.

The value is unlocked in ways that demand thinking outside that box that people keep talking about. One example, from Tim Skipper, Vodafone’s head of IoT, who, refreshingly came from Mars (the chocolate bar, not the planet) was about panes of glass.

Value, he believes, is based on this question: “Will the trillions of connected devices actually say anything useful in their lifetime?”

If your building has a hundred thousand panes of glass, and each one has a monitor, the value is not in them saying “still here, battery OK”, but when one pane says “still here, pane broken”.

This allows the glass guy to find the pane quickly with the right size replacement, and this provides the value.

A similar example from a bloodthirsty Tim Devine of PA is with mouse traps. The value is when a trap snaps, not when nothing happens.

Most use cases, so far, are about delivering efficiency.

Monitors on containers in busy shipping ports increases efficiency dramatically. You know exactly where each of hundreds of thousands of containers are, what is in them, and what the temperature of the container is. Keeping track used to be a nightmare.

The connected pill bottle has also been used as an example. At one particular conference, most of the delegates thought it was a neat idea. One delegate thought it was absolutely revolutionary – he was Scotland’s Finance Minister. His biggest cost in healthcare is rushing people who don’t take their meds to hospital at midnight. Keeping people in their homes, and keeping people taking their medication when they are meant to, will possibly save him millions of pounds a year.

This drive towards automation is about efficiency, but it also seems to be dangerous ground, and one where the debate is heating up. If the internet does not improve productivity and if automation takes away jobs, we could find ourselves in a vortex of self-destruction. As Tony Poulos said, “If no one has jobs because of automation, they won’t be able to buy the things that are built by automatons anyway.”

We suffer from a delusion that once we are freed from the drudgery of nine-to-five jobs, we will be able to become creative and do creative things. This free time, we believe, will be spent adding value to the IoT, rather than just efficiency.

So, that’s OK then. I’ll just go and be creative.

Actually, no wait, I’ll just go and play in this new 5G-enabled (actually, I don’t care whether it is enabled by 5G or Budweiser) virtual reality game for an hour or so, and be creative later. Maybe tomorrow.

Next week is definitely looking good. I’ll get back to you.

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