Gartner has predicted that by 2020 the Internet of Things will grow to 26 billion objects. (This excludes smartphones, tablets and PCs, which will account for a separate 7.3 billion devices, Gartner adds.) With these kinds of staggering numbers, there is a disruption in the making -- and we CIOs need to be ready for it.
What are the "things" that we should be prepared for? At one level, all sorts of familiar "dumb" devices -- the toaster, light bulb, refrigerator, faucet -- will be 'smartened' with real-time sensors responding to internal or external data, and will be able to communicate.
Even more exciting are a class of totally new things --- clothes with embedded sensors, earphones that measure heart rate and temperature, smart watches that look for presence -- creating ripples of data around both inanimate and animate objects. In the future it will be tough to have a heart attack in private, or even to lose a dog.
As the IoT explodes with sensor costs coming down and capability going up, one should expect, at least initially, a fair amount of heterogeneity. There will be sensors that read and transmit, but cannot be controlled. But in some cases there will be truer bi-directional control. There will be different mechanisms for communication between certain clusters and classes of things -- think RFIDs: very different from how, say, a network of servers communicates, or how kitchen devices might poll each other to compute a shopping list for you.
Standards will undoubtedly evolve, but these are likely to be sets of standards for particular verticals like medical devices or the automotive industry. IP-addressable sensors and sets of sensors will make the "internet of the physical world" happen.
But what will IoT be for? At the consumer level, we are headed towards hyper-awareness at multiple levels: Personal health statistics, environment optimization, social presence relay and detection, behavioral prediction (like personal spend preferences and triggers) and the like.
At the business level there will be two imperatives. For those manufacturing physical goods, there will be the pressure for "smart everything" -- what should be measured and why, how the data should be used and when, and how such sensors can be made virtually invisible.
The second imperative, and this will be for all: How can IoT data be used to understand and optimize business processes, tools, communications and buying and selling behavior?
Ultimately the game is one of competitive advantage, and using IoT to advantage will be a key skill required of CIOs.
For CIOs, the biggest challenges will be the quantity, collection, analysis and purposeful utilization of near-real-time or real-time data from numerous heterogeneous sources. Big Data has emerged at just the right time for this. But the harvesting of data from inexpensive sensors -- many of which will fail, be in error, need recalibration in different environments or may not have been activated -- will require intelligent handling of large data volumes.
Even without reference to IoT, SanDisk, as an example, is predicting a 14-fold increase in enterprise data to be managed by 2020. IoT multiplies this challenge.
For companies looking to make an impact In the IT world, there are clear and open frontiers to a wide array of both simple and complex sensors to detect and correct device failures for IoT, or better still prevent them. There are obvious needs for large volumes of sensor data to get to the right place securely for analysis and optimizing of objectives.
Accompanying this are concerns about privacy, security and theft, especially since many of the 'things' entering a business may be from multiple unknown consumer sources. (If you thought BYOD was tough on CIOs, wait until your employee's shirt wants to adjust the thermostat!).
At a more mundane level, as machines communicate with software, today's concerns about user experience will be replaced with concerns about efficiency and effectiveness of the back-end. New licensing models are also likely to evolve -- clusters of machine interactions differ significantly from users interacting with software. The cloud will play a big part in machine interactions, particularly for transmission, storage and analysis, since local read/transmit or read/act/transmit will be the most common states.
We have highlighted heterogeneity as pervasive, at least at the start of the Internet of Things. This does not mean that "seamless integration" will not be expected of the CIO! Personal, home and work environments will be expected to connect in rich ways without interruption. APIs and extensions from the sensor manufacturers, communications standards and protocols will all help. But the work ahead is fairly formidable.
With all of the above, how does the role of the CIO and IT change? I have a fundamental belief that I will re-state here: "If you treat IT as a commodity that is what you will get. If you treat it as the creative edge of your business, you have a weapon like no other."
Nowhere will this be truer than in how different companies approach IoT. The laggards will view IoT as an infrastructure issue: Get things talking, collect data, send it off for data warehousing and analysis. The leading IT departments will embrace IoT as a green-field for partnership with the business to explore how new business models and predictive customer knowledge can evolve.
Azmi Jafarey has over 25 years of experience as an IT leader. He was CIO at Ipswitch, Inc. for the last nine years. In 2013, he was awarded CIO of the Year by Boston Business Journal and Mass High Tech. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.