Home5GThere are only three IoT use cases, and one doesn’t exist yet – simplicity, scale, and the state of ‘things’

There are only three IoT use cases, and one doesn’t exist yet – simplicity, scale, and the state of ‘things’

IoT Solutions World Congress, in its fifth year (2019), has the whiff of MWC about it. It’s in Barcelona, at the same venue, and the faces are familiar — with a number of the European telecoms giants, big cloud brands, and systems integrators scattered among a hard core of IoT firms, which also make a home at MWC. This event is smaller, confined to a single hall (Hall 2), but it carries over some of the grand-standing and future-selling that MWC trades in.

It is co-located with Industry Week, an altogether more business-like affair in Hall 3, showcasing a range of industrial machine makers, tooling companies, and additive manufacturers. And it is tempting to see some irony in the fact the technology vendors at IoT Solutions World Congress, an event going under the 2019 tagline ‘Digitalizing Industries’, are talking about the enterprises these parallel exhibitors, embedding the latest tech, have served for years. Hall 3 was markedly less noisy, but you suspected business was being done.

But that’s not entirely fair. The Industrial Internet Consortium, which puts on IoT Solutions World Congress, made a point this year — and met with some resistance, it said — to be sure most, if not all, of the keynotes and panels featured end-user stories, from enterprises making digital change. It meant, actually, that side of the equation was decently represented, which is not always the way at generalist technology shows. And companies on the show floor said the number of customers across their stalls was notable.

This played into the show’s dominant narrative as well: that the technology works. The Industrial Internet Consortium said to journalists in a breakfast briefing these industrial revolutions take longer than anyone thinks. They have before, and they will this time, too, even despite the accelerating pace of technology — notably, with cloud, IoT, and AI coming to maturity together in time to meet this industrial need / demand. The blocker, it said, is culture. Of course, it is culture,  but culture is a sensitive subject. 

The implication, almost, is things would happen so much quicker if we could get rid of the workers and put the machines in charge. There was a joke, retold here, that the factory of the future will be run by a man and a dog — the man to feed the dog, and the dog to stop the man from messing with the controls. It was funny. But it was not the message. The message was that industry is entrenched, and the economy is everything — and their rebirth will be difficult and drawn-out. That is the cultural challenge.

But the story, as told by the enterprises on stage, and stalking the floor, was about progress, and not the terminal struggle to change society at large. The best discussion of the whole event, at least on stage, was with McLaren. Formula 1? I can take it or leave it, personally, but McLaren’s story of driving miniscule performance gains for powerful competitive advantage with the highest-grade digital pyrotechnics was captivating — and will be retold here, at some point (workload permitting).

The narrative at the show went that the IoT market has gone from proof-of-concept to ‘proof-of-value’. Yes, the technology works, but the value — and the business case — are still to be understood by both sides. Importantly, however, this exercise requires less work than before. In another show highlight from the stage — again, told squarely and effectively, with none of the bright-eyed happy-tech bluster that afflicted a number of sessions, as with every show of this sort — Vodafone said that even this concept of ‘co-creation’ was tired. 

The industry has gone beyond, said Phil Skipper, the company’s head of IoT development (pictured); the IoT market is no longer so novel or messy that technology experts and domain experts — technology sellers and buyers, IT departments and OT functions — must work through protracted collaborations to create solutions from scratch. There are, it turns out, only three use cases, or ‘use classes’, said Vodafone, and one of those doesn’t even exist yet. 

Asset tracking and remote monitoring are the only ones that matter now; everything else riffs on these. The emergence of URLLC-grade 5G in Release 16 will introduce a third: a means for ultra-reliable industrial control. The old telecoms sector, which stands to deliver this third digital-change service must sell reliability-as-a-service, and be prepared to put its money where its mouth is to guarantee the risk.

But right now, before then, the market can spin-up a matrix of services off these other two use classes, which can be shown to deliver value already, and offer enterprises — including, most importantly, small and mid-sized firms, which have not, cannot, and will not invest in digital expertise required to foster their own solutions — magic tonics for digital change, available on subscription. 

The IoT market is past co-creation, to arrive at a stage of ‘co-configuration’, said Vodafone — only the final 20 per cent needs to be configured in collaboration with enterprises, in order to create bespoke solutions for business-specific (not even sector-specific) industrial challenges. The rest — the initial 80 per cent of IoT solution-making — is available in take-away form, as-a-service, with little required beyond shuffling the dials on connectivity, compute, and analytics. 

That was the message — echoed in the briefing rooms, as well. It showed the market making progress. But the show was shot-through with a dose of reality, as well — from its host, marking the event out from most others. Yes, the market is proving the technology’s worth, and not its work, and these ‘use classes’ are clear, said the Industrial Internet Consortium in a separate briefing. 

But there is such complexity beyond — in the shade between industrial disciplines, in their different languages and definitions (‘security’, ‘safety’, ‘real-time’ speed, ‘reliability’), in their technical requirements — that nothing is ever so simple. And try as it might, the technology market has always struggled to divine simplicity, it said — how long, after all, did it take the telecoms sector to define a seven-layer (Open Systems Interconnection) model, from physical through to application, it asked, rhetorically. 

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