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What’s holding back the Internet of Things?

By Brian S Hall / October 31, 2013

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a dizzying attempt to connect every computer, mobile device, gadget and just about every object we come in contact with, through a real-time, data-driven global mesh spanning the virtual and physical landscape. If that sounds confusing, just wait until you dig into the logistics behind it. Between the technological limitations, government roadblocks and corporate alliances, the inner workings of the IoT gets as befuddling as quantum physics.

Why bother?

The hope, of course, is that the Internet of Things will bring about more efficient businesses, faster and safer roads, more personalized service, healthier citizens and an all-around improvement to our day-to-day lives. Not to mention, THE MONEY. According to Cisco, which has a stake in the market’s success, “the Internet of Things [combined] with the Internet used by people and their mobile devices will create $14.4 trillion in value and boost overall corporate profits by 21%. All by 2022.” Cisco’s figures account for new revenue streams as well as trillions in savings, thanks to increased productivity and far more optimized supply chains.

The opportunity to fundamentally alter how we live, work, what we should buy, what ails us and where society should focus its limited resources can be answered by the Internet of Things. Unfortunately, there’s still a few things to work out before this revolutionary concept can be put into practice.

What’s the issue?

The sad fact is, our various sensors, devices, beacons, cars, computers and appliances do not and, for now, cannot “talk” to one another. Your refrigerator does not talk to your iPhone, which likely does not communicate with your home thermostat, which is unable to relay its data to you while you are inside your car and so on.

Cisco and other major tech companies are diligently crafting alliances and industry partnerships to turn the IoT dream into a reality, but in a market as competitive and patent hungry as the tech industry, it’ll be a long time before the Internet of Things reaches its full potential.

Scoping the Internet of Things

The transition from non-connected devices with little or no computing power—most roads, for example, or your old television—to a world where most devices contain computing and communications functions is taking place across nearly every industry and every region. IoT market estimates pin the current number of connected devices at nearly two billion, which will grow to nine billion by 2018. Some experts, such as ABI Research, claim that 30 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things by 2020, with Cisco predicting closer to 80 billion.

Nonetheless, most objects continue to remain unconnected. This is largely due to the fact that so many objects connect directly to a particular vendor’s servers, or are strictly part of some particular ecosystem. The result is a balkanization of networks and devices, with the full potential of all that data hidden away. Industry partnerships, however, are actively seeking to change this primal stumbling block.

Bringing the Internet of Things together

Earlier this month, giants AT&T, GE, Cisco and Intel formed a new Internet of Things partnership. GE has developed a software platform called Predix that is designed to securely process “industrial big data” to ensure better decision-making for companies. AT&T will supply GE’s secure wireless communications and help connect industrial machinery and devices to the Internet.

Cisco will provide networking gear specific to the industries GE’s solution is targeting, including oil, gas, industrial, transportation and health care. Intel will provide embedded hardware and services to ensure the various sensors and machines can connect to networks around the world.

Others are focused on the Internet of Things for the home. For example, iControl—a software platform for connecting your home—and EcoFactor—an energy data company—are partnering to deliver a “smart energy service that integrates energy devices and appliances with data analytics about home heating and air conditioning systems.”

A recent Forrester market report noted that most sensors and devices do not connect with one another. Worse, integrating sensors, data, services and back-end systems is going to take many years and will not come cheaply.

Fortunately, the potential payoff is so great, businesses and governments alike are investing the resources it will require to break down these enormous barriers. Although the Internet of Things is only in its infancy, and will likely run into some growing pains along the way, few doubt it will become as integral to our lives as the World Wide Web.