In a recent article in the Economic Times, entrepreneur and academic Kevin Ashton wrote that complete roll out of the Internet of Things (IoT) would take until the end of the century, noting that, ‘The Internet of Things will take a century to roll out completely. We are just 16 years in, with a long way to go and a long way gone.’
Given estimates by analysts such as Gartner around the number of connected devices by 2020, you could be forgiven for thinking that this timeline is overly conservative, to say the least. Ericsson’s former CEO Hans Vestburg said in 2010 that there would be 50 billion connected devices by 2020, a prediction oft repeated since, and even dramatically exceeded in 2012 when IBM went so far as to forecast a frankly astounding - and in hindsight, clearly ridiculous - 1 trillion connected devices by 2015.
There are also a number of notable IoT projects that would suggest Ashton’s prediction to be wrong. The Netherlands, for example, has recently beaten its nearest rival South Korea in the race to build a national IoT network. Dutch telecoms company KPN recently switched on its IoT network, covering the entire country and connecting tens of millions of embedded devices. US mobile operators are also now adding IoT connections to their networks at a faster rate than they are cell phones, cars in particular. Even Africa, notoriously behind when it comes to implementing new technologies, is set to see IoT reach mainstream adoption during the next two to five years, according to Gartner.
As much as these projects seem to indicate growth at a pace far in excess of Ashton’s prediction, it’s also true to say that the estimates are wildly high and such projects do not necessarily indicate widespread adoption. Indeed, the whole project itself may well not be feasible as things stand. The current number of connected devices out there varies between Gartner’s estimate of 6.4 billion (excluding smartphones, tablets, and computers) and IHS’s estimate of 17.6 billion (which includes all devices) - some way off the 1 trillion IBM predicted, though still nothing to be sneezed at. Ericsson had almost halved its prediction for the number of connected devices from 50 billion by 2020 to 28 billion by 2021, and other firms have gone for roughly the same number, Gartner being among the lowest at 20.8 billion by 2020.
There are a number of other issues that could hold back IoT. Firstly, the limitations of WiFi, currently needed to provide the ‘connected’ element of connected devices. A connected toaster without WiFi is just something that makes your bread crispy, not something that does it from outside the house. WiFi is an incredible resource, but it’s limited because it relies on radio waves. The radio spectrum is a limited resource, which means that as more devices become connected, everyone is sharing the same amount of bandwidth, which will likely severely limit the speed of IoT. It also uses far too much energy, and supporting the billions of people and devices set to connect to the Internet over the next decade will be hugely damaging to the planet if we’re forced to rely on WiFi.
Such a slowdown is not necessarily a bad thing. There are many fears around the security of connected devices, with critics arguing that designers, in their rush to ride the wave of IoT hype, have made protecting the wealth of data that the devices will produce a secondary concern. Technology does, however, evolve, and it will evolve to cater for IoT in terms of both connectivity and security. Given the hype around IoT and the number of companies and designers getting on board - Morgan Stanley’s AlphaWise survey in May 2016 found that 90% of designers said they are adding connectivity for IoT, while IoT M&A activity increased 28% year—on-year in Q2 - it may currently be difficult to envisage IoT not being fully integrated into society within the next decade. However, given the barriers and the real pace of growth at the moment, Ashton’s prediction may not be as ridiculous as it first appears.