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The Internet of Things is becoming ‘boring’ – and that’s a good thing

In a very short time, IoT has evolved from a technology to a business capability.

I was recently invited to deliver a keynote address at this week’s Internet of Things World Solutions Congress in Barcelona. The organizer was adamant about what kind of keynote the IoT Congress wanted – no more visionary “imagine a world” oratory about the someday potential of a global infrastructure of connected devices. Leave the stirring rhetoric behind and bring us lots of real customers using IoT today.

That was fast. Just a few years ago, I needed at least a 20-story building to deliver an elevator pitch explaining the industrial Internet of Things and the wonders to come. Now I can do it in three letters – “IoT.” I said it, you got it, let’s talk use cases and how IoT can make your business more successful.

Same thing happened at last April’s immense Hannover Industrial Fair in Germany. A quarter-million people attend. Almost 7,000 companies present. It’s Coachella for electronics and mechanical engineering gear-heads. In prior years, Hannover was all about the widgets – my copper wire is better than yours. This year, it was an IoT wonderland – digital twins and robots and drones and virtual reality and connected software for predictive maintenance and remote monitoring…digital technology enabling everyday business objects to sense, analyze, and act.

For a moment, the IoT Congress’ demand for hard IoT use cases and the fact that everyone at Hannover understood IoT’s promise made me slightly sad – IoT isn’t special any more. This is terrible. But then I realized with growing excitement that the exact opposite is true: now that so many people grasp what the Internet of Things promises, we can bring the vision fully to life by addressing the fundamentally important question: what can IoT do for your business?

We’ve seen this movie before. I remember encountering Marc Andreesen’s Mosaic web browser in 1994. This is really cool, I thought, but what the heck is it for? Web browsers had been around since Tim Berners-Lee released the first one in 1991, but in 1994 browsers were still specialized scientific tools mostly used to link research laboratories to one another.

I was part of the web revolution, and I remember customers asking, “What’s the web? Why do I need it?” And then technology advanced and the mystery evaporated like dew in the morning sun. As understanding spread, businesses quickly discovered compelling reasons to be on the web – first it was inert brochureware, then customer service, e-commerce, marketing, brand building, customer relationship management, social media, and so on ‘til today. Customers quickly went from asking why they needed to be on the web to developing real business uses that harness all the web’s capabilities.

We’re approaching that moment in Industrial IoT. Everybody’s getting it – IoT builds on top of prior chapters of the digital revolution and extends them into the physical world. Web and mobile are digital talking to digital, whereas IoT converts the physical into digital and then into physical again.

Without much explanation or confusion, customers now understand the business case for:

  • Digital twins – a simulation of a physical object or system that lets companies design and test products, factories, or entire supply chains digitally before they’re actually built
  • Remote monitoring – using connected sensors in machines, factories, power plants or entire power grids, network operations centers, airports, spacecraft, etc., to create automated reports on the condition of crucial assets
  • Predictive maintenance – monitoring in-service equipment to determine the most cost-effective and business-wise times for upkeep

Sounds like a menu, right? That’s the point. Very few people are comfortable eating in a restaurant with no menu. Once IoT customers know and understand what services and capabilities are on offer, they can begin to quantify the benefit and return on investment. For example, I can confidently tell a customer we can save them 10 to 15 percent on service costs with remote monitoring because there are numerous use cases to point to, not just with my company but with multiple major IoT vendors.

Am I saying industrial IoT is headed for commodification, and you can get great IoT solutions from just about anybody? Of course not. Now that our customers understand IoT’s potential, competitive differentiation comes from developing more and better capabilities, deeper understanding of our customers’ businesses, richer value-added services, and more attractive business models for partnering with our customers.

In some industries we serve – oil & gas and mining, for example – it’s still early days for IoT. Leaders in those industries are just getting started, and an emerging shared IoT vocabulary, grammar, and use cases are empowering them to rapidly cross the adoption chasm.

In a very short time, IoT has evolved from a technology to a business capability, which is exactly what happened with the web. People don’t talk about browsers and HTML any more. All they ask is, “How can I do this transaction online?” With industrial IoT, we’ve gone from Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” to “OK, IoT. Show me how you can make my business better.”

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  • Great article. "Now that our customers understand IoT’s potential, competitive differentiation comes from developing more and better capabilities, deeper understanding of our customers’ businesses, richer value-added services, and more attractive business models for partnering with our customers." Very helpful, indeed.

  • Subhash

    Love the article with references to Sci-fi literature and movies. I'm reminded of reading Ray Bradbury's - "Martian Chronicles" in which there is an entire chapter dedicated on home automation. Its a reality now.
    The potential for innovation and creating new business models out of it, is endless. The more we talk about IoT the interesting it gets. That'e the beauty of it. Interesting times for anyone craving for a better world. Glad I'm part of it with ABB.

  • Guillaume

    Great article. Loved the parallel with the Internet story, it really helps to understand where we are today and what tomorrow could offer. Thanks!

  • Stuart

    To draw another parallel with 1994, it was possible back then for Yahoo to create an index of web sites to access using the Mosaic browser, as there were few enough to catalogue. Today it's hard to imagine that was ever possible.

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