The Internet of Things (IoT) has arguably been one of the hottest headlines for several years. The collection of IoT technologies promises to make processes more efficient, give products new capabilities, and spark novel business models. Thus, I was initially a bit surprised by a recent conversation with a marketer from a prominent technology company who wondered out loud if perhaps it wasn't time to downplay the IoT. An interesting thought for sure.
His concern was prompted by notable security attacks, including one by a large botnet of hacked devices aimed at KrebsOnSecurity.com. The firm reported: “…indications that this attack was launched with the help of a botnet that has enslaved a large number of hacked so-called “Internet of Things,” (IoT) devices — routers, IP cameras and digital video recorders (DVRs) that are exposed to the Internet and protected with weak or hard-coded passwords.”
That attack was thwarted. However, a more public recent attack on Internet service provider Dyn caused shutdowns in major services such as Twitter, Spotify, and PayPal for many users around the world. Much of the traffic that attacked Dyn also came from IoT devices like webcams and home gateways connected to the Internet.
There's also the recent hack of smart light bulbs that relied on a weakness in the common ZigBee wireless radio protocol used in numerous IoT devices. That hack used a worm to infect the light bulbs. A couple of bulbs here and there is probably no big deal. As noted in a New York Times report , however: “Imagine thousands or even hundreds of thousands of internet-connected devices in close proximity. Malware created by hackers could be spread like a pathogen among the devices by compromising just one of them.” This could lead to widespread blackouts and worse. The security vulnerabilities of connected devices are indeed very real.
One of the more prominent applications for IoT has been for the smart home, consisting of smart thermostats, smart lights, intelligent door locks, and smart security cameras. According to a security expert at IoT provider NXP, these present an attractive attack surface for hackers, potentially leading to stolen data, denial of service, physical malfunctions, and even system hijacks and ransoming. Per reporting in TechSeen , security frim Fortinet has warned that security concerns could lead consumers to hesitate buying connected devices out of cyber security fears.
Beyond security, complexity of implementing the IoT remains high. Most smart home elements require separate smartphone apps from multiple vendors leading to endless frustration. Per a Time article about smart home devices: “…there's the matter of the inevitable tech headaches…” and “…sometimes the devices create more issues than they remedy.” Not the least of which is that most of the devices won't talk to one another. Despite these integration challenges and security worries, Comcast still predicts that over 30 million homes in the U.S. will have smart home technology sometime in 2017.
There are now even “smart beds” that come with an app that provides a sleep report and tells you how to adjust for a better night's rest, such as changing the mattress temperature. One such offering purports to integrate with other smart home devices to ensure the coffee starts to brew when you hit snooze. Cool? Perhaps, although one can only imagine what the app provider might do with information from sensors in the bed, let alone the hacking possibilities for the Internet of Beds (IoB).
Quite clearly, many new IoT products are technology solutions looking for a significant problem to solve. After all, do we really need refrigerators that tell us when the milk is running low or an app to turn on the electric blanket? Over the last couple of years, Gartner Group's annual hype cycle has shown the IoT near the “peak of expectations, not far from the downward slope toward the “trough of disillusionment.” Evidence is mounting that the slide has started.
But this doesn't mean we won't achieve the potential of the IoT. Gartner has said there were more than six billion IoT devices in use in 2016. Still, with the usage and security headwinds, one has to wonder about all the breathless predictions of 30 billion or even 50 billion connected devices by 2020, the latter being the equivalent of six devices for every person on the planet. Nevertheless, a McKinsey & Company report from 2015 claimed the IoT could generate up to $11.1 trillion a year — about 11 percent of the world economy in economic value — by 2025. They went on to state that, if anything, the hype around the IoT understates the potential.
It could be that the IoT challenges of today are simply growing pains. Standards that ensure security and interoperability remain elusive. Further, only early adopters will buy an IoT product that works with just one or a small handful of other products. The complexity of the IoT landscape remains daunting, with many vendors chasing a lucrative market, but one where no clear tried-and-true set of technologies and standards has emerged as being clearly superior. Possibly a step in the right direction, RCR Wireless reported on the Allseen Alliance recently merging with the Open Connectivity Foundation, with the goal of working towards IoT device interoperability through open source frameworks and standards. Added to that, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently released security guidelines for the design phase of IoT products and services, largely aimed at enabling security-by-default.
As a TechTarget article sagely notes: “When it comes to adoption of new products and technologies, there is often a chronological lag between perceived mass-market readiness and reality. Cloud, mobile apps and big data all fell into this category before indeed becoming an integral part of our lives.”
With security and interoperability challenges now center stage, it appears the IoT will follow this adoption pattern. Thus, the broad adoption of the IoT — both for businesses and in the home — and its true potential may be a little delayed.
Gary Grossman is a public relations executive and in-house futurist with Edelman, leading strategy and content development, and project execution for leading technology companies. Previously, he led global communications for Tektronix and served as a systems engineer and senior technical consultant for HP.