IoT is here and there, but not everywhere yet

The Internet of Things is becoming real, but complexity may be holding it back

The Internet of Things is still too hard. Even some of its biggest backers say so.

For all the long-term optimism at the M2M Evolution conference this week in Las Vegas, many vendors and analysts are starkly realistic about how far the vaunted set of technologies for connected objects still has to go. IoT is already saving money for some enterprises and boosting revenue for others, but it hasn't hit the mainstream yet. That's partly because it's too complicated to deploy, some say.

For now, implementations, market growth and standards are mostly concentrated in specific sectors, according to several participants at the conference who would love to see IoT span the world.

Cisco Systems has estimated IoT will generate $14.4 trillion in economic value between last year and 2022. But Kevin Shatzkamer, a distinguished systems architect at Cisco, called IoT a misnomer, for now.

"I think we're pretty far from envisioning this as an Internet," Shatzkamer said. "Today, what we have is lots of sets of intranets." Within enterprises, it's mostly individual business units deploying IoT, in a pattern that echoes the adoption of cloud computing, he said.

In the past, most of the networked machines in factories, energy grids and other settings have been linked using custom-built, often local networks based on proprietary technologies. IoT links those connected machines to the Internet and lets organizations combine those data streams with others. It's also expected to foster an industry that's more like the Internet, with horizontal layers of technology and multivendor ecosystems of products.

The good news is that cities, utilities and companies are getting more familiar with IoT and looking to use it. The less good news is that they're talking about limited IoT rollouts for specific purposes.

"You can't sell a platform, because a platform doesn't solve a problem. A vertical solution solves a problem," Shatzkamer said. "We're stuck at this impasse of working toward the horizontal while building the vertical."

"We're no longer able to just go in and sort of bluff our way through a technology discussion of what's possible," said Rick Lisa, Intel's group sales director for Global M2M. "They want to know what you can do for me today that solves a problem."

One of the most cited examples of IoT's potential is the so-called connected city, where myriad sensors and cameras will track the movement of people and resources and generate data to make everything run more efficiently and openly. But now, the key is to get one municipal project up and running to prove it can be done, Lisa said.

The conference drew stories of many successful projects: A system for tracking construction gear has caught numerous workers on camera walking off with equipment and led to prosecutions. Sensors in taxis detect unsafe driving maneuvers and alert the driver with a tone and a seat vibration, then report it to the taxi company. Major League Baseball is collecting gigabytes of data about every moment in a game, providing more information for fans and teams.

But for the mass market of small and medium-size enterprises that don't have the resources to do a lot of custom development, even targeted IoT rollouts are too daunting, said analyst James Brehm, founder of James Brehm & Associates.

There are software platforms that pave over some of the complexity of making various devices and applications talk to each other, such as the Omega DevCloud, which RacoWireless introduced on Tuesday. The DevCloud lets developers write applications in the language they know and make those apps work on almost any type of device in the field, RacoWireless said. Thingworx, Xively and Gemalto also offer software platforms that do some of the work for users. But the various platforms on offer from IoT specialist companies are still too fragmented for most customers, Brehm said. There are too many types of platforms -- for device activation, device management, application development, and more. "The solutions are too complex."

He thinks that's holding back the industry's growth. Though the past few years have seen rapid adoption in certain industries in certain countries, sometimes promoted by governments -- energy in the U.K., transportation in Brazil, security cameras in China -- the IoT industry as a whole is only growing by about 35 percent per year, Brehm estimates. That's a healthy pace, but not the steep "hockey stick" growth that has made other Internet-driven technologies ubiquitous, he said.

Brehm thinks IoT is in a period where customers are waiting for more complete toolkits to implement it -- essentially off-the-shelf products -- and the industry hasn't consolidated enough to deliver them. More companies have to merge, and it's not clear when that will happen, he said.

"I thought we'd be out of it by now," Brehm said. What's hard about consolidation is partly what's hard about adoption, in that IoT is a complex set of technologies, he said.

And don't count on industry standards to simplify everything. IoT's scope is so broad that there's no way one standard could define any part of it, analysts said. The industry is evolving too quickly for traditional standards processes, which are often mired in industry politics, to keep up, according to Andy Castonguay, an analyst at IoT research firm Machina.

Instead, individual industries will set their own standards while software platforms such as Omega DevCloud help to solve the broader fragmentation, Castonguay believes. Even the Industrial Internet Consortium, formed earlier this year to bring some coherence to IoT for conservative industries such as energy and aviation, plans to work with existing standards from specific industries rather than write its own.

Ryan Martin, an analyst at 451 Research, compared IoT standards to human languages.

"I'd be hard pressed to say we are going to have one universal language that everyone in the world can speak," and even if there were one, most people would also speak a more local language, Martin said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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