Forget dimming the lights, the opportunity is right outside your door

Evan Cummack, Head of IoT Business Unit at Twilio and keynote speaker at CENSIS’ Tech Summit

The ‘Internet of Things’ is officially mainstream. ‘Alexa, dim the lights’ has exactly one meaning and requires no explanation.

Bizarre, perhaps, but undeniably futuristic. The smarthome war is in full swing, with Apple, Google, Amazon and Samsung vying to become the ‘operating system of the home’, demanding the unconditional surrender of our thermostats and microwave ovens.

Okay, I get it. The smarthome opportunity is enormous. More importantly, it’s sufficiently homogeneous to imagine a ‘winner take most’ global market. For Alexa and friends, dimming the lights in a Sydney apartment is not materially different to dimming the lights in a Malibu mansion. And with all that delicious consumer data to slurp up, I can see why the tech titans are hot and bothered.

But there’s a gigantic – and in my opinion more interesting – IoT landscape evolving outside the home. New advancements in low-power wide area (LPWA) wireless networks are reducing the barrier for developers to create connected products that solve the near-limitless array of IoT use cases in the city, in the factory, and on the farm. 

For hundreds of years, our relationship with the physical world has been one of brute force processes: dumpsters emptied once a week; tires replaced every 80,000 km; a train that stops at every station. How much carbon have we burned emptying that half full dumpster, week in, week out? How many times has a widget been replaced too early or too late because scheduled maintenance was cheaper and easier than understanding its true condition? Cheap, pervasive internet connectivity will continuously inform our relationship to the physical world. For just a few dollars, any ‘thing’ will be connected for its entire useful life using technologies like NB-IoT, a candidate for 5G’s ‘mMTC’ category (massive Machine Type Technology).

This is the real opportunity for IoT developers. The problem space is too large and too diverse to be dominated by a small group of mega tech firms. 

The advent of the smartphone gave rise to a new generation of companies – companies like Uber and Spotify – that triumphed over impenetrable incumbents by introducing simple but fundamental changes to the value proposition, made possible in their case by ubiquitous consumer mobile access. IoT represents a similar opportunity for independent innovators — the opportunity to disrupt centuries-old industries by changing the basis of competition in the thousands of product and service categories that inhabit our physical lives. Industries that were once daunting due to high capital requirements are vulnerable to new entrants who can uncover game-changing value in connectedness.

Why now? What changed? New developer platforms tend to emerge from a perfect storm of ingredient technologies. Cellular IoT (aka ‘wide-area IoT’) is no different. The biggest enabler: we’ve collectively spent zillions of dollars in the mobile ecosystem in the last decade. Two billion smartphone users represent a ubiquitous user interface for internet-connected systems. To support this, mobile network operators have invested in network density, coverage and performance improvements that incidentally benefit IoT. Perhaps less obvious is that building all those smartphones has driven down the cost of LTE modems, accelerometers, lithium batteries and GPS modules. More mobile users + better networks + better, cheaper components. The outcome: a company like Lime – a handful of Silicon Valley engineers who were able to put their electric scooters on street corners in over 100 cities, ridden every day by millions of mobile users. Unimaginable just a few years ago.

With that said, developing for IoT remains harder than building an app. While it’s cheaper than ever to get from prototype to production, the process requires insider knowledge and remains out of reach for first-time IoT entrepreneurs. Experimentation – the prerequisite to innovation – is not cultivated by the ecosystem. 

The global connectivity ecosystem is fragmented and global management of a cellular-connected fleet is unreasonably difficult. Network operators have a history of geographic fragmentation, stemming from deep roots in spectrum licensing. This bleeds into the connectivity procurement experience, where dozens of local contracts can be required to support a solution at massive scale. Compare this to the ease of reaching global customers through Apple’s App Store or deploying a global cloud service using Microsoft Azure. The connectivity industry will be forced to embrace the global reality of IoT. 

IoT developers: carpe potestatem. It’s an amazing time to be creative. Perhaps, like me, you kick yourself for missing out on the PC, web or smartphone wave – ‘on demand taxis!? I could’ve thought of that!’– well, now is your chance. Identify an inefficiency in our relationship to the physical world and get ready to sharpen your C++ skills (for better or worse, still the de facto language of the IoT). 

Forget dimming the living room lights, the real IoT opportunity is right outside your door.

Evan Cummack will speak at CENSIS’s sixth annual Technology Summit on Thursday November 7that Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. 

For more information, please visit: https://censis.org.uk/censis_tech_summit/6th-technology-summit/