The Internet of Things Is Real, But Skeptics Abound

April 17, 2017, 12:49 PM UTC
Smart appliances in network. Concept for Internet of Things.
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Companies, like people and cities, have every right to call themselves whatever they please. I come to this conviction, perhaps, as a native of Illinois, where cities like Des Plaines (pronounced dess-PLAINS) and Marseilles (mar-SAILS) defy the sophisticated outsider to apply a French pronunciation.

Silver Spring Networks (SSNI), a publicly traded company that provides so-called smart meters and other networked energy-efficiency services to electric utilities, prefers to be known, at least by its newish CEO, as an Internet of Things, or IoT, company. “IoT is real, not slideware” says Mike Bell, who joined Silver Spring in late 2015. Bell has an illustrious background: a varied career at Apple before and after Steve Jobs returned to the company, followed by senior stints at Palm and Intel.

He says he took the recruiter call from Silver Spring because he recognized the IoT potential. “We have 26 million devices in the field on every [habitable] continent,” he says, noting that the networks Silver Spring runs on behalf of its utility customers amount to something nearly as powerful as an alternate Internet.

Still, Silver Spring has challenges. It has expanded into non-utility services like managing a municipality’s streetlights to maximize efficiency and minimize downtime. It wants to be more than a smart meter company. Yet three utilities make up nearly 70% of its revenues. And according to its securities filings, Silver Spring faces a bevy of competitors, from giants Cisco, AT&T, and Alcatel-Lucent to smaller players like Sigfox, Ingenu, and a nonprofit cell phone company coalition called the LoRa Alliance, which is focused on IoT.

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Silver Spring, which doesn’t make money, is a relative pipsqueak, with a market capitalization of about $600 million. Foundation Capital, one of its venture-capital backers, continues to hold a nearly 20% stake in the company.

Bell is right that IoT is real. His well-positioned company’s slowness in capitalizing on the trend illustrates where the skepticism comes from about it. Making money on an idea is harder than it looks.

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