The new era of network connectivity is upon us

Tom Welsh
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Seizing its potential will be the challenge

IT MAY sound like just the latest tech hyperbole, but the Internet of Everything (IoE) is set to transform business as we know it. It is the next stage in the internet’s evolution: first, people and information were connected; now physical objects are joining that network (think of telling your TV to record a show from your smartphone). IoE is the network of these networks, and refers to the dynamic value of all the connections between people, data, processes, and things across the internet.

The potential is huge. Fewer than 1 per cent of all the world’s objects are now online, with 10bn to 15bn devices connected. But this number will likely skyrocket to a projected 50bn by 2020. Computers are becoming smaller and more sophisticated: a device the size of a salt grain can include a solar cell, a battery, memory, a pressure sensor, and wireless radio. Barriers to connectivity are also falling: IPv6 (the latest revision of the internet protocol) has enough capacity for every star in the known universe to have 4.8 trillion IP addresses. Given Metcalfe’s law (the number of possible connections between any two things in a network grows in proportion to the square of the number of members), the significance of any increase in the internet’s size becomes ever greater as it grows.

The result is that objects, people, processes, and data can be used more efficiently. Cisco research suggests that, between 2013 and 2022, IoE will lead to $4.4 trillion (£2.8 trillion) in lower costs and higher revenues for the private sector in Europe. This represents assumptions about how better networks can improve worker productivity, lead to more efficient asset use, reduce the time taken for innovation to reach market, and enhance customer experience.

Incredible though these figures sound, sparks of IoE innovation can already be found. Take Samsung’s smart fridge. It is linked to the internet and allows you to remotely track food stores. But by networking more deeply, your fridge could feasibly restock itself, using the internet to find the best deals, while cross-referencing with your calendar to work out a convenient delivery time. And the fridge could relay real-time data back to Samsung, providing valuable actionable information about how it’s used.

And Andy Hobsbawm, co-founder of software company EVRYTHNG, thinks IoE has implications outside tech. He cites the NHS. “It loses millions by not having expensive equipment in the best location at the optimum time.” By connecting these assets to a network, with software that tracks their location, and then by allowing staff to use smartphones to view this data, productivity and asset utilisation could rise.

Entire business models could also be subverted. Hobsbawm mentions the US company Progressive Insurance, which provides drivers with a device called SnapShot. This monitors driving from inside the car and, because it has real-time information on how you drive, Progressive can now offer innovative risk-adjusted pay-as-you-go policies.

But there are hurdles to overcome. Andrew Rose of Forrester Research notes privacy concerns. The collation of multiple pieces of data “can swiftly become personal information as events are reviewed in the context of location, time and recurrence”. Given the potential volumes of machine to machine traffic, existing internal storage systems could also struggle to scale in a cost-effective manner. Further, companies will have to grapple with the problem of protecting data in an open-access environment, alongside the challenge of interpreting such huge quantities of information.

But given that many companies already have the basic infrastructure required to seize IoE’s potential (a network, employees with smartphones), it’s not hard to see why this important trend could really take off.