Can the ‘Internet of Things’ live up to its hype?

August 13, 2015, 8:22 PM UTC
Nest Labs Inc.
Courtesy of Nest

Alan Murray recently shared in this space his enthusiasm for a technology revolution known as the Internet of Things. He, like others, clearly detects the smell of money in the air, and he cited a recent 186-page report by Tata Consulting Services to validate that there’s a really big business development afoot. Tata found, for example, 26 companies that will spend at least $1 billion this year on initiatives related to the trend.

Something big certainly is going on, and I’m particularly intrigued by the proliferation of more powerful and less expensive sensors for all sorts of applications that weren’t possible just a few years ago.

That said, I’m sniffing a somewhat different odor when it comes to the Internet of Things, and that’s whatever scent snake oil gives off. Tata, in fact, begins its report by noting that it’s understandable to be wary of what might be the “latest gadgets-gone-gaga trend.” Well said, even if Tata then moves quickly to dispel such concerns. It writes, for example, that 79% of respondents to a recent survey use “IoT” technologies to track customers, products, facilities, and supply chains. That’s interesting, but it’s not new. (RFID, anyone?) Tata also notes that “companies with IoT programs in place reported an average increase of 16% in 2014, in areas of business where IoT initiatives were deployed.” One needn’t have a vivid imagination to picture the sales pitch that follows … ‘And let us tell you how a consulting engagement with Tata will make you more IoT savvy!’


Having lived through the collapse of the Internet bubble, my beef with the Internet of Things is less conceptual than definitional. My hunch is that Tata’s respondents are as quick to label their “IoT” accomplishments as clueless companies were 15 years ago to slap a “dot-com” on their names. In fact, there isn’t a valid description of just what the Internet of Things is, meaning any company can re-label existing projects to suit the current fad. Tata shows how it’s done by profiling a handful of big-company success stories. One is HP, which touts its “HP Print Channel” service that uses the company’s “IoT-enabled printers” to let consumers automatically print Instagram photos from their mobile devices. I’ve been printing at home with my outstanding wireless HP “Envy” printer for several years now, even before it was “IoT-enabled.”

Make no mistake, the Internet of Things is a thing. Sam Whitmore, a consultant to tech-industry publicists, recently noted to his clients that “IoT fever is off the chart” and proceeded to advise them on how to pitch stories about it to journalists. Headlines in a newsletter called MediaPost’s IoT Daily (tagline: “Marketing to the Internet of Things”) recently included “IoT Seen as the New Face of Media Consumption” and “’Smart’ Mailboxes Could Message Consumers.”

The trend is your friend, as the saying goes—so long as you understand what it does and doesn’t mean.

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