Don’t worry – it’s not a blog about Tindr or Grindr. The connections we’re talking about here are mobile subscriptions and the men are those at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It is still mostly men. Despite the best efforts of the GSMA with sub-events like the Connected Women’s Summit and France’s promotion of its exhibiting companies as “La France Tech” (which must have had the members of the Académie Française heading to their graves for some early turning), MWC remained defiantly male. In the opening keynotes around 85% of the audience were men. Telecoms, for all of its populist marketing, is still largely a suited profession.
What was exercising the males of the species this year was numbers. Back in 2009, Ericsson predicted that there would be 50 billion mobile connections by 2020. At the time it seemed possible; phone usage was growing and everyone expected that the things around us would follow suit by getting their own mobile connections, leading us to that kind of number. It’s now beginning to strike the CEOs within the industry that five and a half years have passed and we’re half-way there. Yet we’ve still only connected a few tens of millions of machines. That’s why they’re getting so excited about wearables and the Internet of Things as the only way to make those predictions come true.
The Internet of Things has a problem. Unless we start looking at a new infrastructure, it may peter out after the first fifty billion devices. Everyone seems to be so excited about predicting whether it will be 20 billion or 50 billion or 1.5 trillion that they’ve forgotten about how the connectivity and business models will scale.
There’s a general consensus that we’ll get to between 25 and 50 billion connected devices by 2020. The first 25 billion of these is foreseeable. Around a quarter of it will come from personal devices – mobile phones, tablets, laptops, gaming devices, set-top boxes and even cars, using cellular or broadband connections. They need moderately expensive broadband contracts, but we’ll pay as we can stream lots of data. The same again will come from machine-to-machine (M2M) connections where broadband or cellular connectivity is embedded in commercial products to monitor their performance. That covers everything from telematics, connected medical devices, asset tracking, smart buildings and everything from vending machines to credit card readers. In this case the service contracts are justified by improved business efficiency.
The second 25 billion is likely to come from locally connected devices – generally personal products which connect to smartphones. Eighteen months ago I wrote a report on these appcessories, predicting that they could grow to an installed base of around 20 billion in 2020, getting us close to the total of 50 billion. These will piggy-back on existing broadband contracts, so most won’t have a service model. At best, there may be an opportunity for selling apps or subscription services.
However, at that point, future growth may start to slow. Although these products all get referred to as the Internet of Things, they’re only that in the loosest sense, as they rely either on personal user setup, or professional installation. Both are time consuming and a barrier to ubiquitous deployment. To achieve the real Internet of Things we need products which can be taken out of their box and which connect and work autonomously. Without that, we’ll never get past the tens of billions. Despite all of the IoT hype around, no-one is really addressing the hole that needs to be filled. We need an Infrastructure of Things – a new Low Power, Wide Area, end-to-end wireless Network (LPWAN), along with a new approach to data provisioning for life. This article explains why and what the options may be.
Over the past few years I’ve been working more and more with the large volumes of data that come from M2M and the Internet of Things. It wasn’t that long ago when “Big Data” was a novelty that was largely a vision of the future – more talked about than done. In a few short years it’s morphed into the “next big thing” that everyone needs to have and which will save our planet and our health systems. Of course, Big Data itself is of limited use. What changes the game is the insight which can be extracted from it. That’s why the headline description of big data can be unhelpful. By concentrating on the “big”, it places the spotlight on the mechanics of database structures, diverting attention from the real skills that the industry needs to make it valuable.
I’d like to share some things I’ve learnt from my experience working in this area. The first is the continuing hype. When I put together a conference on the use of big data at the Cabinet Office last year I was hard pressed to find anyone really doing it commercially – the hype was still far greater than the practice. I don’t think that much has changed since then. We’re still on the lower, gentle slope of the Gartner hype curve. My guess is that the only companies making significant money from big data at the moment are conference organisers and consultants. But attention is being paid.
The second is the type of skills we need to cultivate. We talk about Data Scientists as the new breed of practitioner, but that’s largely a self-invented title from data analysts who want more recognition. Extracting value from big data, or broad data if you want to be more accurate, is more than that. The best definition I’ve heard is that it’s about telling stories with Matlab. It’s not about Hadoop or Cassandra – they’re just the mechanics. The reality is that Big Data needs to be about Data Storytellers if it is going to be transformational.
The third thing is that this is something we do exceedingly well in London. Other places may collect more data, build bigger server farms or invent more capable database structures. But we tell better stories. So if you want to generate value from big data, London’s the place to set up your business.
If you believe the futurologists, then the Internet of Things (IoT) is going to be the next big thing. Depending on who you listen to, by 2020 there will be up to 50 billion connected devices, an order of magnitude greater than the number of mobile phones. You can already see the start of that, whether it’s smart meters, connected information signs, or the increasing number of fitness devices, like Fitbit and Nike’s Fuel wristband. To get a better idea of what else may be emerging to make up that number, a good place to start is Kickstarter – the website for crowd-sourced funding. It shows that a significant number of potential start-ups are looking for money to produce a bewildering array of gateways and sensors.
It’s great that there is so much innovation going on in this area. I’ve been trying to help it take off for almost two decades and at last I can convincingly say it’s happening. But underneath the enthusiasm, I’m concerned that not enough attention is being given to security.
A few weeks ago, a speaker at a security conference in Australia talked about wireless attacks on pacemakers. Possibly because of the combined press frenzy around Superstorm Sandy, Obama’s re-election and Jimmy Savile, that piece of information wasn’t picked up by the mass media. At the same time, I’ve been playing with some of the latest consumer products that have come to market and found very little evidence of security. In fact, recent coverage in the technical press suggests there is a worrying feeling of complacency. I suspect that may be because wireless and end-to-end security is a new concept for many of the engineers designing IoT devices. But it is important that it makes its way onto the agenda, otherwise it may seriously impact the potential for growth.