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Mama, there's a thing on the Internet

The “Internet of Things” (IoT) has become a fashionable IT buzzphrase over the past three years, although the idea has been around for much longer, so what’s it all about?


Like most IT hype the reality is pretty mundane, the IoT is the concept of the Internet being used by “not people or computers”. Examples include vending machines which alert the operator when they need restocking, smart meters which report the use of electricity in real-time and enable supply management and demand-based pricing, real-time vehicle trackers, air quality meters, building security systems, health monitoring devices and smartphones. 

In the early to mid 2000’s whilst working for a supplier of industrial laundry equipment I introduced Internet connectivity to allow washing machines to report impending failures to the service department, report sterilisation success and failure statistics to hospital management, and allowed students across the UK to see if the washers and dryers in their student accommodation laundry room were in use or free in order to avoid traipsing down to the basement to find that all the machines were in use. They could also reserve a machine and be alerted by text message or email when it became free, and when their washing was done.

These are typical examples of the use of the Internet of Things - connecting machines to the wider world in order to create value. In my examples above value to the laundry operators because machines were serviced before they broke down, value to hospital managers who could prove proper disinfection, and value to students in improved convenience when doing their laundry.

With the advent of mobile data communications, firstly GPRS, and now 4G, the Internet of Things grew to include equipment in vehicles and carried by people. The opportunities are limitless, if you wanted to know the most popular times and places for people to take a walk so you could position your ice-cream van appropriately it wouldn’t be that difficult to get informative data.

Therein lies the rub. It’s one thing having the Coke machine tell the operator that it needs refilling, but harking back to the student laundries, because they were also paid for electronically, I could if I wished have told you that Mrs. Robinson’s youngster David in Southampton Uni only did his laundry three times a year at the end of each term. Apple has notoriously had problems with iPhones collecting and reporting location data unknown to the phones owners. Do you really want some company knowing which adult channels you watch on TV and when?

The Internet of Things is a fantastic opportunity to improve service and convenience for consumers, a potential mechanism for regulating supply using demand-based pricing (did I mention Launderettes having washing machines which charge less at quiet times?), and a privacy nightmare. We all interact with machines and, especially where electronic payment is involved, we’re pretty easy to identify - probably the major reason that the Internet of Things is getting so much attention these days is the potential threat to privacy. If IoT technology is to become more widespread we consumers are going to need reassurance about the security of data which may be used to identify us and analyse our behaviours.

Where there are problems there are solutions… The future of the Internet of Things will be increasingly characterised by security and privacy being an integral part of the offering. Companies which manage to balance the capability to create additional customer value with the need to provide security and privacy will stand out in an emerging sector currently led by marketeers who see the dollar potential of the commercial upsides without taking sufficient account of the downsides - in the future the IoT will have a major influence defining our perceptions of which companies we trust.

All very well, but where’s the relevance to business in the Isle of Man? Lawyers, insurers, CSPs other “typical” Isle of Man business don’t seem like the first candidates to exploit or benefit from the Internet of Things. 

Our CSPs operate aircraft, yachts, ships, many of which are already reporting performance and location data via the Internet. At least one CSP is operating a fitness monitoring company for a client in which health data for thousands of customers is reported back by smart pulse monitors. Insurers are increasingly looking to the Internet of Things to monitor insured assets and the risks they’re exposed to. Lawyers are using IoT data to provide evidence in cases. Property owners and hoteliers are increasingly relying on IoT to simplify the monitoring of buildings and provide more proactive maintenance. Food manufacturers  and supermarkets are using the IoT to monitor the refrigeration of fresh and frozen foods, both in store and in-transit. Even newspapers are using the IoT to help with restocking unattended newspaper dispensers. The IoT is penetrating all aspects of business to supply new classes of “big” data and improve service.

The Internet of Things represents a major commercial opportunity to improve value through service, efficiency and accountability. Our ability to exploit it as businesses will characterise a new leg in our journey to becoming digital, and as with previous legs of this journey such as email, web and social media, successful exploitation of the IoT will be a business differentiator for many years to come. 

The IoT is also a great opportunity for the Isle of Man ICT sector - both for telcos such as Manx Telecom which provide enhanced roaming or multi-network SIM cards for mobile data, and for datacentres where IoT represents the opportunity to sell security, privacy and independence as assurance to customers that their data is safe in our hands.

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