01 Sep 2015 16:08 IST

The Internet of Things could dramatically change our lives

And for young MBAs, the IoT value chain offers a plethora of opportunities

The technology industry has a rather poor record when it comes to using consumer friendly names to define its products. If any other industry had used jargon such as Wi-Fi, RFID, USB 2.0, 4G LTE or HTTP 404, we would probably have run away from it. Yet, we have not only come to adopt these terms but use them in everyday conversation as though we were born with their knowledge.

A new buzzword that the industry has coined, which I feel it’s unbelievably absurd and unintelligible, is the “Internet of Things”. And to make matters worse, techies have abbreviated the term – IoT.

So, what exactly is this IoT?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the global body that establishes worldwide standards for technology, is not exactly sure. “Despite the diversity of research on IoT, its definition remains fuzzy”, the IEEE concluded and in May, invited comments from people across the world about what its definition really ought to be.

Cisco, the world’s largest network manufacturer defines it most elegantly: “IoT connects people, data, processes and things”.

However, this vision is not entirely new. Onstar, the General Motors division, which equips its upscale vehicles with satellite and mobile technology to provide remote support for its customers, has successfully implemented a predecessor of the IoT for over 20 years.

So popular was this service that, for years, GM used Onstar as a product differentiator to reign superior over Japanese and European brands. Later, GM realised that it was cannibalising valuable service revenue and began to license its technology to competitor luxury brands including Acura, Lexus and Infiniti.

Given the technological constraints of the late 1990’s, Onstar’s offering was incredibly innovative, and to this day, the company is a leader in satellite and mobile technology thereby keeping drivers connected.

For instance, when a customer is driving a Cadillac in one of the remote regions of North America and is involved in an accident the car’s airbags are automatically deployed. Specially designed sensors in the car automatically use GPS to ascertain the position of the car and relay this information and the Vehicle Identification Number to a control centre in Detroit. There, service representatives instantly pull up the owner’s details and attempt to call him on his mobile to check up on him. If the owner doesn’t respond, the assumption is that he is injured and a call is made to the nearest first responders (such as the police, ambulance, or hospital) to dispatch help.

Using this technology, the service centre can respond to less life-threatening situations too. For example, it can remotely unlock cars when owners lock themselves out or provide details about a car’s whereabouts to the police when it is reported stolen. Of course, in the American context, where privacy concerns are paramount, the latter feature is available only to police departments.

Onstar doesn’t want to deepen family feuds by revealing vehicle location details to an estranged spouse or girlfriend who simply wants to track the owner’s location for purposes other than law enforcement.

Easy interoperability

In its most fundamental avatar, the IoT is a modern version of Onstar, except that while Onstar technology is largely proprietary, IoT uses common protocols and standards for easy interoperability. Interoperability is the ability of different information technology systems and software applications to communicate, exchange data, and use the information that has been exchanged.

IEEE says that every IoT solution includes three components - inexpensive sensors which will constantly measure some physical aspect like temperature, presence of people, a water leak, traffic or pulse; an intermediate network/data communication layer which constantly reports the situation to a central system; and an application layer in the central system that either uses business intelligence to act on the situation, or involves people or other systems to take suitable action.

Cisco estimates that 50 billion ‘things’ (sensors, devices) will be on the internet by 2020.

IoT has the ability to dramatically change the way we live. Consider a hotel property manager that manages dozens of hotels across the country. Let us say a sensor in one of the properties detects a water leak and sends an alert to the central application system, which, immediately informs the service technician and opens a trouble ticket. When the technician arrives at the troubled location, another sensor identifies the technician’s credentials and reports this information to update the trouble ticket.

Once the leak sensor sends a “dry” signal, the central application system closes out the ticket. If no such dry signal is received within a certain pre-determined time, the sensor intimates the central application system which will automatically escalate the case to the local manager as well as the country property manager.

In Dallas, this week, I spoke with Mahesh Ramu, a veteran management and technology leader who has just agreed to take over as VP of Strategy for IoT at Plasma Business Intelligence. He explained his new company’s vision for IoT. “As sensors become cheap, they will be present everywhere in increasing numbers and variety. The central application systems will have a hard time worrying about ‘talking the language and protocol’ of each of these sensors. That is where Plasma’s C2M layer comes in – it plays the role of an interpreter by transcribing messages received from these innumerable variety of devices to what the central application system can understand. This removes much of the complexity for these systems,” he said.

Network layer

Plasma’s business model is to, therefore, focus on the intermediate layer - the one that accepts inputs from sensors in the field and submits them to the application layer of the client where business decisions are made. The company has developed translations for hundreds of sensors and hundreds of application protocols so that when faulty sensors are replaced with another brand with different standards, its network layer can still understand and send the correct information to the application layer. Think of it as a rendering of Google Translate which can translate any of 40+ languages to any of 40+ languages creating more than 1,600 permutations and combinations.

A more complex IoT scenario, Ramu says, could be this: Consider a long-distance truck driver who is running low on fuel, a fact that he has not even noticed. Sensors in the truck transmit this information to a vehicle command application. There, the system calculates how much fuel is still left and based on the vehicle location, sends out a request for the lowest quote to all fuel stations in the area. Fuel stations, bidding for business, automatically respond with their best price. The command system then sends an SMS to the weary truck driver to fill up at a specific fuel stop.

Everyone wants a piece of it

The business possibilities to automate and extract additional cost savings are extraordinary, which is why everyone is talking about IoT. Customer/employee satisfaction rates are also enhanced. After all, who wouldn’t appreciate a maintenance technician replacing a defective bulb minutes after it fails, before anyone even complained?

The field is new and all the big players, such as Cisco, Intel, GE, Apple, IBM, Google and the Indian IT majors - along with startups, are investing billions in what could be the next big revolution in tech.

As an MBA student, you could play a role across the IoT value chain but most likely at the business intelligence/application end.

Sounds like a great career choice if this kind of thing interests you.

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