The era of the so-called Internet of things has been talked about so much in tech circles the past few years that some may think it's already here. But smartwatches, Google Glass and clothing embedded with sensors hardly represent a full mainstream deployment of the system.
So what has to happen to make the Internet of things (or IoT, as it's sometimes called) more accessible to consumers and business? Actually, quite a bit, as a panel on the future of the IoT detailed at the GMIC—Global Mobile Internet Conference—Dec. 1-3 in San Francisco.
The first thing that has to happen is that the networking industry has to agree on how to assemble the platform for connecting the various devices and do it securely.
"Everything's going to be connected in the future, and that requires a platform," said Maverick Shih, president of Acer's BYOC (Build Your Own Cloud) and Tablet Business Group. "It's a huge opportunity. There will be a lot of sensors and new technology (still to be invented) that will change your life."
While smartwatches and devices like Google Glass have been designed with the Internet in mind, analyst and panel moderator Ben Bajarin noted that the growth in the IoT is also coming from connecting what had previously been thought of as "unconnected" devices. For example, there are now basketballs and tennis racquets that measure your performance and output the data so you can see where you need to improve.
"The number of connected things being forecast keeps going up," said Bajarin, principal industry analyst at Creative Strategies. Gartner, for example, predicts that by 2020 there will be 26 billion devices on the IoT.
"You are already seeing thermometers, turkey basters, connected light posts in Toronto and different cities," said Bajarin. "Pressure on the infrastructure is a blossoming challenge."
Joseph Ziskin, vice president of corporate strategy at IBM, agreed that it's going to be a challenge for the current network infrastructure to support all these new devices. "There is a capacity and throughput issue because we are going to create a lot of data, and latency presents a tremendous challenge to networks and carriers."
Challenges aside, the panelists were uniformly positive that the IoT is coming whether or not there are security and performance issues because the upside benefit is too great to ignore.
"Using [the IoT] to sell more stuff is not that interesting, but using it to make me healthier, that's very interesting," said Ziskin. He noted that in the U.S. people are often reluctant to call their doctor when they have health issues or take preventative steps to stay healthy.
But if health monitoring devices enabled by the IoT "let us monitor our health and change our behavior, that could be a huge win. We're just at the beginning of this," he said.
"Hospitals can increase the quality of the outcome and experience of the patient. All of this is very possible. It's a question of making people aware and open to the experience."
Bajarin agreed that health care and wearable devices are likely to be among the first areas where the IoT will thrive, but he worries about security and privacy. "There are going to be things you want your doctor to see, but not your insurance agent," he said.
There is also the issue of cost. Bajarin noted that the smart tennis racquet that analyzes your swing costs $200 more than a tennis racquet without the microchip. Over time he thinks the costs will come down, perhaps even as low as a "regular" tennis racquet.
But Ziskin argued that the current premium is still worth it to many people if it makes them a better tennis player.
Similarly, the forthcoming Apple Watch is priced starting at $349. That's cheaper than a luxury watch, but far more expensive than most consumer watches. Apple doesn't have to match that lower price if consumers agree it's worth more to, for example, get stock quotes and alerts by simply glancing at the Apple Watch on their wrist.
Ziskin also thinks video surveillance enhanced by Internet-connected mini cameras, drones and other devices is going to be one of the first big areas where the IoT has an impact. "There's a lot of potential out there along with challenges related to privacy, but I think it will be overcome," he said.