Cisco's chief executive of the UK & Ireland was unsurprisingly opportunistic about the benefits – given the company's embedded interest in the network – where he said:
“The Internet of Everything provides the platform from which an ever-increasing number of connections will ‘wake-up’ the world around us. With just 1% of the physical world connected at this time, this is just the beginning of an amazing future.
“As connections become smarter, faster and more insightful, we will only see more imaginative and ambitious applications of the IoE which will quite literally change the world. That is exciting for Cisco because there is no required roadmap, no single path - just a platform that offers abundant opportunity and endless possibilities for everyone.”
However, the platform itself has yet to take off. We have been talking about the IoE, or one of its variations, for a couple of years now and yet we are seeing very little real life evidence of its application. There are of course some examples, but the idea of having everything around us connected to the internet and delivering useful nuggets of information to our mobile devices wherever we are, still seems like a futuristic ideal. But why? What's holding it back?
Do we need an Apple or an Amazon to make this work?
The report sparked a rather interesting debate amongst a number of the speakers at least week's event, which looked precisely at this issue. What is needed to make the IoE a reality for companies and consumers alike?
One of the speakers, Matt Hatton, director of Machina Research, quoted William Gibson, a fiction author noted for making some rather accurate predictions about the internet, where he said: “The future is here, it's just not very evenly distributed.” He believes this is true of the IoE. Hatton added that what is going to develop is a world where the components of the IoE are disaggregated and anyone can can create applications to take advantage of the diverse network of things – when this happens, the IoE will be a reality.
“The way that the Machine-to-Machine world has worked is that anyone who wanted a solution had to put in place all of the individual building blocks – had to buy a device, had to buy connectivity, had to develop the application, had to develop the logic around it.
“We are shifting now to what is an IoE world, whereby you are disaggregating the device from the application development environment. To put it another way, in order to develop an iPhone application you don't need to develop the iPhone. That's the context we see, the evolution. Much more like the internet.
“Who is going to do best at this? The companies that are able to improvise and collaborate.”
However, his point was challenged directly by Craig Ellis, telecoms director at Network Rail (the owners of Britain's railway infrastructure). Ellis argues that what is needed is an iPhone equivalent for the IoE before we will begin to see pervasive use of connecting the world around us. He said:
Finally, Dr Maurizio Pilu, director of the UK's government-backed innovation enabler, the Connected Digital Economy Catapult, said that what is needed is open standards, open source and interoperability. His argument is similar to Hatton's, but he essentially believes that the IoE will become the next layer on top of the internet – a layer that can't be controlled by one single company.
“We need that one global company to grab the bull by the horns and really take it off. Cloud computing was always around, but Amazon really put a stamp on it as a global company and it suddenly came to the forefront.
“We saw it with the iPhone, with Apple. We need a company with global scale to grab IoE and push it out. The competitors will wake up, rush into the board room and ask why they are behind the curve. We will have that Apple vs Samsung moment.”
“Any sufficiently advanced IoT or IoE solution would be indistinguishable from the internet in the future – at the moment it isn't, at the moment it is stuck in closed systems and it is very proprietary. Access to data, open source, open APIs, interoperability, standards and the ability for people to rapidly make profit is absolutely crucial to grow an IoT ecosystem.
“What is going to drive hyper growth – what we have seen it in the past – is when the application development has been separated from the infrastructure, from the components. When that happens industries take off and IoT is not quite there yet. At the moment it is still very much a vertical solution and therefore it is merely addressing large verticals and large application domains. When the interoperability happens and this separation between the layers, it will go much faster. Because people will be free to do what they do best, build applications.”
I thought the three speakers above got to the crux of a serious problem with the IoE. It's all very well stating that the IoE ecosystem will be worth $19tn by 2020, and it's understandable why Cisco is very excited to get to this point, but we are still trying to figure out how this is going to happen. The benefits are there, but the practicalities aren't.
I find myself agreeing with Dr Pilu and Matt Hatton. This is too big a development in the next stage of the digital economy to be taken on by one company – and personally, I think it would be a disaster if it was. The internet is a (fairly) open commodity and the IoE should be an addition to that, which is based on open standards and interoperable systems, where everyone is taking advantage of it. As a lot of people are doing with the internet. Consumers should be able to go and buy standard sensors, connect them to anything they like, then use applications on top to deliver services they need. Rather than one company providing end-to-endservices across the board – it's too big of a challenge.
Another speaker at the event summed it up quite nicely. Dr David Shipworth from University College London's Energy institute said:
“What we are in the process of doing now is constructing society's central nervous system. We have started constructing social media, the social brain, the big data analytics, the things that have allowed us to process data and come up with findings. But we have little capacity to sense our world – it's a lot about sensors and actuators being deployed in large numbers and at scale, which will allow us to start to get feedback about the world that feeds into our capacities in cloud computing and big data analytics.”
Do we really want the world's digital central nervous system being controlled by one or two big companies? I don't think this is going to happen, largely because there isn't going to be one killer app that gets this going. This isn't the same as the mobile phone. We don't need a new platform, we already have that – the internet.