Fortifying the Baseline

The world is filled with fundamental “platforms” and enabling technologies. The running joke in IoT is about the 700+ (which may be 900 now for all I know) horizontal platforms for delivering IoT solutions. Think back (for those of you who can) to the late ’90s and consider 700 Yahoo or Google look-alikes.

There were, in fairness, many search engines competing to be the “big dog.” Do you remember them? Nobody does. In fairness, because IoT is fundamentally a vertically aligned proposition, there may be more delivery platforms than search engines that emerge as “winners” due to the nuances and corresponding accommodation of specific domain requirements. But 700? No way.

But it’s not just horizontal IoT delivery platforms that seek to be horizontal winners in IoT.

There are competing communication platforms, security offerings, privacy offerings, analytic stacks and more. The needs in the market and the corresponding market response to these needs generally improves the offerings and the market itself. That’s certainly a good thing. In the early days of computing, the accessibility of computing technology was more difficult because to use the computers, you needed to be a programmer. So, what was the market demand? Make it easier to be a programmer?

The result was 4th generation tools like Visual Basic and PowerBuilder that effectively made it much easier to “make people programmers.” We are seeing the same thing in spades with IoT. That certainly does not always mean the best technology wins. But even when an “inferior” rendering of technology wins due to better marketing or better sales execution (which happens more than anyone thinks), the prevailing offerings are subsequently shaped by market demands, or else they will lose their position in the market.

One example which is a credit to and not an indictment of this is Oracle. By all rights, in the early days, Sybase was probably a better offering. But Oracle prevailed based on better marketing and sales execution, but then evolved into a highly respectable offering.

Today we see these battles playing out on a number of fronts, but for this discussion, let’s take a deeper look at communications. Companies and people want convenience and low cost. This goes well beyond communications for IoT. It’s almost a universal truth, arguably with a raft of unintended consequences, but we’ll save that discussion for a different article. If you are a company evaluating IoT projects and the associated communications offering, you surely have a growing number of choices.

Do you need to use a close-proximity capability to transmit from the endpoint device to an edge gateway? What is the appropriate path from the edge gateway to the cloud? Do you need 5G, or is your project better suited for LoRaWAN? The more you look at a range of options, the more you become aware of the range of options, and the more questions arise. This is a good thing. You need to ask these questions. IoT is a holistic proposition. You will pay a price for not knowing that and the related considerations.

Then what do you ask? How much will it cost? Sure. What kind of sensors will be needed? Absolutely? What level of security will I need? Well, obviously. It’s 2109. But what are those implications? If I have a low power, wide area network (LPWA), are there implications of the security stack with respect to the network? For that matter, are there with respect to the devices? Will those choices impact battery life? They most likely will. Then you begin to consider what data is being generated and who owns it or controls it.

For that one message coming from the ag sensor in the ground, who will receive it? The same message may go to the farm owner, the farm operator, the seed provider, the equipment provider, the bank, the insurance company and more. It’s still the same piece of atomic data. But then you realize that some of the constituents who need that data can only see anonymized versions of it for privacy reasons, and others only want aggregated versions based on use cases.

I have a number of friends in the networking and telecommunications business. It seems like a huge market, but in reality, most everyone knows each other – or knows of each other – to some extent. One of the common traits of those in networking and telecommunications is that all agree that IoT is massively impacting them. Either as a threat or an opportunity, or both, it is a key element of the future direction.

In this regard, my own observations would suggest there are two critically important factors to consider when lining up behind a given strategy, be it WebRTC, LoRa, 5G or something else. The first is the holistic understanding of IoT (and how that chosen path fits in), and the second is an intimate understanding of the current, or future potential use cases.

The holistic understanding is largely described above. In simple terms, IoT is an ecosystem comprised of sensors, communications, security, privacy, data, governance, processing, analytics, and interfaces. But no single element exists in isolation. The interdependencies are plentiful and exceptionally important. The better they are understood, along with the corresponding use case needs, the greater the leverage and impact you get. The right architecture and element decisions will yield better data and better leverage with fewer costs.

And the gap between good and bad is extreme.

The second key consideration is the current or potential future use cases. The reason is obvious: this drives demand. I would like to believe the main gaps are in holistic understanding, and surely that is a widespread problem. But an equally important issue is aligning the appropriate use cases for a given technology set. I have a good friend who runs a company that is arguably a LoRa based horizontal solution, but they are going to market as a specific vertical use case. Companies are buying outcomes. Having been in the tech stack most of my career, I completely understand how easy it is to get lost in the technology.

Moreover, I have seen countless tech vendors shy away from a narrower vertical scope because they “did not want to limit their opportunity”. But being all things to all people is seldom a winning strategy, especially for an emerging offering.

I think back to a conversation I had with a founder of Splunk. Much of what they developed for entirely horizontal, but their path to market was in providing IT Management solutions. He knew they could do much more, but they deliberately chose to go to market as a solution. And they killed it and have now fanned out. Good for them.

There are a number of great IoT communication options. But not unlike Oracle or Splunk, the big winners will also appreciate the importance of sales and marketing and establishing themselves in the market.

To that end, being able to articulate their place in the context of the holistic IoT ecosystem, and being able to point to, if not deliver specific outcome-based solutions that utilize those technologies will be equally critical.