Cisco CEO: Why the future of the Internet is already here

July 16, 2014, 2:18 PM UTC
Cisco CEO John Chambers at Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2014
Cisco CEO John Chambers at the 2014 Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo.
Photograph by Stuart Isett — Fortune Brainstorm Tech

Welcome to the Internet of Everything. For more than 20 years, technologists have been imagining a world in which everyone is (at least potentially) connected to everyone else. The Internet as we have come to know it – dominated by the Web, email and instant messaging – has been the embodiment of that idea. And we’re well on our way: there are more than 2.9 billion Internet users around the world, about 40% of the world’s population. That’s up from under 1% in 1995. But there’s more to do. Much, much more to do.

The Internet of Everything takes the original idea of the Internet a quantum leap further, envisioning a day when both everyone and everything are connected to everyone and everything else.

The concept of the Internet of Everything has been years in the making. As often is the case with new technologies, enthusiasts have generally over estimated the near-term impact of the Internet of Everything – but history will show that the pundits have under estimated the long-run potential.

What will come as a surprise to many is the fact that the Internet of Everything has arrived – and in force. Remember that the Internet of Everything is less a distinct technology than the convergence of multiple technologies: cheap and ubiquitous sensors, tied together by widespread high-speed wireless networks, generating data stored in the cloud, crunched by increasingly valuable analytics and accessible via simple apps by billions of smartphones and tablets.

Cisco estimates that the number of devices connected to the Internet – things of every conceivable variety – will grow four times to 50 billion by 2020 from about 13 billion today. Those billions and billions of connected devices – more than seven things for every person on Earth – will generate massive amounts of data that can reshape the way the world lives and works.

Raw data isn’t enough, however. All of those bits need to be sifted to find useful information, and then transformed into knowledge and translated into wisdom that will make life more livable and businesses more profitable as we will make better-informed decisions.

The cumulative economic potential from this convergence of technological forces is almost unimaginable, and will inevitably change the way many companies do business.

Consider, for instance, the rapid changes unfolding in health care. Humankind faces a serious demographic issue: as lifespans extend and birth rates slow worldwide, we’re seeing intense pressure to control the cost of providing health care to seniors, who are becoming an increasingly large percentage of the world’s population. The Internet of Everything can play a key role here. Studies show that 70% of doctor visits do not require any sort of physical intervention – virtual doctor’s visits, including virtual diagnostics, can cut costs and alleviate the mounting shortage of physicians and nurses by making them more efficient.

Businesses rife with inefficiencies are being exposed by innovators leveraging a combination of proliferating apps and widespread use of smartphones and tablets.

Uber has so thoroughly disrupted the hidebound taxi industry that drivers have taken to the streets in cities across Europe to complain. Likewise, the hotel industry is scrambling for a strategy in the face of growing adoption of services like AirBnB that allow consumers to rent out their spare bedrooms to travelers eager for alternatives to traditional lodging options. And the emergence of network-attached 3D printers stands to change the face of manufacturing, shipping, dentistry and a host of other businesses.

Also, consider the simple act of parking your car.

According to the insurer Allianz, drivers in the UK routinely spend an extra 15 minutes on routine trips looking for an empty spot. Over a lifetime, that adds up to more than 8,325 hours spent looking for a spot – about 347 days. How depressing: A year of your life spent circling the block.

To make matters worse, all that circling has a ripple effect: the Intelligent Transportation Society of America estimates that nearly 30% of urban street congestion is due to our collective and frustrating search for some place to stash the car. The eternal search for parking burns fossil fuel, produces pollution, generates noise pollution (all those honking horns!) and raises our collective blood pressure.

The application centric infrastructure (ACI) provides a host of opportunities in this case – in terms of monetization and better processes. Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, has been working with Cisco to attack that city’s messy parking problems. The local government has installed a network of light and metal detectors to detect whether specific parking spots are occupied. Drivers get information on which spots are free through a combination of apps and digital signs linked by the Internet; the city also collects valuable information on parking and driving patterns that can improve traffic management. Drivers also use the app to pay for their spots; the city says these new urban services boost parking revenue by $50 million.

Day after day, examples continue to mount. The Internet of Everything has arrived and yet it has only just begun. It is going to change the way almost everyone on the planet lives, works, plays and learns. It’s real. And it is creating unbelievable value in the world we live in.

John Chambers is Chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems. Wim Elfrink is Cisco’s Executive Vice President for Industry Solutions and Chief Globalization Officer.