It’s hard to make things work in the IoT - it's anything but plug and play. This report outlines why, what is needed, and current leading-edge efforts to achieve it. To deliver the benefits of the Coordination Age, all manner of "things" will need to be able to discover each other and communicate more autonomously. For this to happen easily and securely a new enabler is needed: the Internet for Things (I4T).
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The Internet for Things and the Coordination Age
In our recent research report The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms, STL Partners described how the global economy is moving into a new age: the Coordination Age.
This is driven by a global need to improve the efficiency of resource utilisation, arising from a combination of developments in both demand and supply. In terms of demand, there are pressing needs from all customers to make less do more. On the supply side, technologies like AI, automation, ‘digitisation’, NFV/SDN, and potentially 5G, provide a smarter and more flexible way to do things.
The consequence is that coordination is the job that needs to be done across many market areas. People, things and information need to be brought together at the right time and in the right place to deliver the desired outcome.
- Smart home: devices, sensors, appliances and applications created by many different companies need to be coordinated into an easy-to-manage solution for consumers (see our latest report Can telcos create a compelling smart home?)
- Healthcare: where clinicians, patients, treatments, resources and information need to be coordinated for successful healthcare outcomes (see Telcos in health – Part 1: Where is the opportunity? and Part 2: How to crack the healthcare opportunity)
- Transport: coordination is needed to manage transport flows for both public and private transportation, to ensure the best use of available resources and where to direct investment most effectively
- Logistics: to manage the distribution and delivery of stock and produced goods across highly complex, international supply chains
- Industry: to ensure that manufacturing and supply-chain processes deliver, assemble and process goods and materials efficiently
The best description we’ve come up with for the common need across these areas is “to make our world run better”. It’s not a generic do-gooding mission, it’s about improving what people and companies get for their time, money, effort and attention.
It’s an over-arching principle (or meta-trend) that makes sense of, and gives direction to, the many technology led ideas like “Internet of Things”, “Industry 4.0”, and others.
But … so what?
It matters because to have a winning strategy first requires a superior (or at least appropriate) mental grasp of the environment, or frame of reference, for that strategy.
Put another way, if you don’t understand how the new game is being played, how can you possibly win?
Telcos frequently missed this trick in the previous 30-year transition into the Information Age.
Figure 1: The three ages of telecoms / ICT
Source: STL Partners
Over the last 30 years, telcos have continued to think, talk and act like network builders. Consequently, telcos did well out of the broadband and mobile data revolution, but they largely missed out on the services that make use of the raw connectivity and turn it into something more useful.
There are numerous examples of changes the Information Age brought to communications, information discovery, and commerce. These new ways of doing things have ultimately been dominated by other players, like Google, Facebook, Apple, Alibaba and Amazon.
Sometimes, when telcos spotted those opportunities, they missed out because they applied old-style business model approaches in the new world. For example, they often tried to make payments and early information products walled gardens and/or failed to grasp the need to collaborate with others to create a proposition with sufficient scale in practice (e.g. see Apple Pay & Weve Fail: A Wake Up Call).
We discuss the reasons why telcos missed opportunities in more depth in our report How the coordination age changes the game.
Now that growth is reaching the end of its cycle in communications (see Figure 2) telcos have a simple choice: stay as a pure connectivity player in a flat or declining market or develop new service propositions in addition.
Figure 2: The well-worn path of slowing telecoms growth
Source: STL Partners
Whichever route they choose (connectivity only, or connectivity plus services), to succeed and grow going forward, telcos need to rethink their purpose and role in the economy.
How does an “Internet for Things” fit with this?
From about 1990 onwards, the internet was the catalyst for change and growth in the Information Age. By making a huge trove of new information – the World Wide Web – accessible and discoverable, and enabling the delivery of data at volume, it ultimately unlocked new business models, huge disruption, and digital transformation across the entire global economy.
To move into the next age – the Coordination Age – a similar concept and mechanism is needed to be able to discover and access connected things.
What’s wrong with the Internet of Things?
There’s a catch with what is currently called the ‘Internet of Things’: it isn’t an internet. It isn’t even a continuous network, and as such is severely limited in its capacity to grow, evolve in intelligence and capability, and deliver the benefits sought.
The Internet of Things (IoT) originated as concept around the turn of the century and has been widely discussed since the early 2010s. Over that time many thousands of ‘smart devices’ and machine to machine (M2M) applications have been developed, creating efficiencies and enhancing functionality in industries as diverse as agriculture, logistics, transportation and medicine. Such applications continue to increase and are often described as ‘the IoT’.
However, most current applications are in reality closed (and private) command and control solutions using standalone technology to limited ends – typically to enhance existing industrial, business or lifestyle functions – such as crop-watering applications that only turn on when the ground is dry, or lifestyle apps like Nest that allow remote control of household functions.
In fact, most of what is commonly referred to as ‘IoT’ is simply an effective use of ICT, contributing to a growing world of connected things – but not constituting ‘an internet’, which is a searchable network of networks that allows users to find and connect to any end-point for which they have appropriate access.
There’s a second problem. What’s really needed is not just an Internet of Things, but an “Internet for Things”. Interestingly, in one of the first mentions of the concept, that is precisely what it was called.
“We need an internet for things, a standardized way for computers to understand the real world,”
Kevin Ashton, Auto ID Center at MIT from 1999
The reason STL Partners thinks an Internet for Things (I4T) is a more useful concept today, is that to make some of the most complex and dynamic applications of the Coordination Age work, “things”, including not just sensors but also IT systems, will need to be able to find and communicate with each other relatively autonomously.
The essential components of an Internet for Things
A true Internet for Things, would be much more open than most current IoT systems, and would:
- Allow discovery of previously unknown sources (e.g. through a search engine), and interactions between communities of things within public or private domains.
- Allow ‘things’ (including IT processes and software as well as devices) to discover each other within certain predefined rules or protocols, rather than either being given carte blanche to talk with any strange device, or being firmly controlled by a single, central authority.
- Contain data that is published, searchable, and accessible to anyone – or anything – with the appropriate security access. It would bring data from machines, sensors and other intelligent things into the sharing economy and semi-public domain.
It could also open the door to much more radical initiatives that would combine data from multiple sources to deliver outcomes as yet unconceived of – perhaps triggering further revolutions in terms of efficiency, productivity and innovation.
So why isn’t there an Internet for Things that works more like the world-wide web, but in a machine-based context?
Many companies implicitly recognise the limitations of today’s IoT and are working on solutions to overcome them, some of which are covered in this report, while others will be examined in upcoming reports on Digital Twins and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). This report details further what an Internet for Things is, how it differs from what is described as the Internet of Things, its benefits, and some of the steps that have so far been taken towards it.
- Executive Summary
- The Internet for Things and the Coordination Age
- How does an “Internet for Things” fit with this?
- What’s wrong with the Internet of Things?
- The essential components of an Internet for Things
- What is the Internet for Things (I4T)?
- How is an Internet for Things different to an Internet of Things?
- Advantages – what can the “Internet for Things” offer?
- What problems does the I4T solve?
- Problem 1: The use case paradox
- Problem 2: No one really wants to be coordinated by someone else
- Problem 3: A classic case of warehouse interruptus
- Two approaches to creating the I4T…so far
- Interoperability forums
- Dating services for digital twins
- Civil engineering: Making all the pieces work together in real life
- Conclusions: It’s a tough job – but somebody’s got to do it
- The three ages of telecoms / ICT
- The well-worn path of slowing telecoms growth
- Some examples of what a “thing” can be
- Players in the logistics ecosystem example
- Three functions of digital twins
- A possible Internet for Things (I4T) ecosystem
- Iotic Labs “Lego”
- BAM Nuttall and Iotic’s learning camera application to monitor machines
A suitable level of security and manageability is obviously required too. More on this later.
 Places on the Internet may be freely viewable to all comers or need permissions such as user IDs and passwords, for example.
 Kevin Ashton was a Procter & Gamble Executive who headed the MIT Center at the time: https://www.forbes.com/global/2002/0318/092.html#7a164e0f3c3e. He is regarded as the author of the term “The Internet of Things”, https://iot-analytics.com/internet-of-things-definition/