The Internet of Things and Networks of Everything

The Internet of Things (IoT) has been a hot topic for several months now, and there are new stories about it in the business and technology press on a daily basis. While it’s easy to view these as hype at worst and vision at best, there is no denying that purveyors of hardware, software and services are dedicating and creating the resources they will use to capitalize on the IoT. Last week alone, there were three announcements that show just how quickly the IoT market is progressing and how big of a business opportunity it is.
On Monday, September 14th, IBM formally launched a distinct IoT business unit and named former Thomas Cook Group CEO Harriet Green as its leader. The new IoT unit is the first significant step by IBM toward delivering on the $3 billion commitment it made to IoT in March. IBM signaled in Monday’s press release that the unit will “soon” number about 2,000 consultants, researchers and developers, who will use IBM’s assets to help customers get up and running on the IoT. Those assets will likely include the Bluemix platform-as-a-service (PaaS), Watson and other analytics software, as well as the MQTT messaging protocol standard for machine-to-machine communication that IBM submitted to OASIS in 2013.
The next day, Salesforce.com used its annual Dreamforce conference as the grand stage on which to unveil its IoT Cloud. This offering has at its core a new “massively scalable”, real-time event processing engine named ‘Thunder’ (to complement Salesforce’s ‘Lightening’ UI framework). IoT Cloud connects IoT resources and Thunder rules-based workflow to route data between them, triggering pre-defined actions. For example, when an individual enters a retail store, a beacon can offer them discounts based on qualification criterion such as loyalty program status and in-store inventory levels. Scenarios such as this will be possible because of IoT Cloud’s integration with the Salesforce Sales, Marketing and Analytics Clouds. IoT Cloud is currently in pilot and is expected to be generally available sometime in the second half of 2016.
While these two announcements are important milestones in the respective organizations ability to help customers connect to and use the IoT, they do not enable them to do so immediately and risk being labeled as more IoT hype. The sheer magnitude of resources assembled for each of these vendors initiatives signals that they believe that the IoT will be both real and profitable in the not-so-distant future.
The final piece of related news from last week underscores that smaller, pure-play vendors are delivering tools that help their customers get on the IoT now. Build.io announced that Flow, its integration PaaS that had been beta released in March, is now generally available. Flow features a drag-and-drop interface that is used to connect IoT elements ─ sensors and other intelligent devices, backend systems, mobile applications and other software ─ into an integrated system. Connections are made at the API level. Like Salesforce’s Thunder, Flow uses rules-based event processing to trigger actions from IoT data. In essence, Build.io is delivering today a critical part of what Salesforce intends to make generally available later this year.

Current State of the Internet of Things and Networks of Everything

These announcements, taken together, mean that the IoT is poised for takeoff. The first sets of user-friendly tools that organizations need to connect IoT nodes, transmit their data and use it to drive business processes are available now, in some cases, or will be coming to market within a year. We are on the cusp of a rapid acceleration in the growth of the market for software underpinning the IoT, as well as the network itself.
This latest batch of IoT announcements from software vendors underscores another thing: the IoT will initially be built separately from enterprise social networks (ESNs). Many organizations, particularly large enterprises, have experimented with ESNs and a few have managed to build ones that are operating at scale and creating value. Those businesses will be turning their attention to IoT development now, if they haven’t already. They will pilot, then scale, their efforts there, just as they did with ESNs.
Eventually, organizations will realize that it is more efficient and effective to build Networks of Everything (NoE), in which humans and machines communicate and collaborate with one another using not only the Internet, but also cellular, Bluetooth, NFC, RFID and other types of networks. This construct is just beginning to enter reality, and it will take a few years before NoE get the market attention that ESNs did five years ago and the IoT is now.
At some future point, when NoE have become a fixture of networked business, we will look back at this month (Sept. 2015) and declare that it was a watershed moment in the development of the IoT. We’ll also laugh at how obvious it seems, in hindsight, that we should have just built NoE in the first place.

Spark Electron wants to make cellular connectivity easy as Wi-Fi

Spark Labs is coming back to Kickstarter with a new project and a mission to change how cellular carriers think about the internet of things. The company, which launched a popular Wi-Fi development board for the internet of things almost two years ago on Kickstarter, is back raising money for a cellular development board called the Electron.

For $39 or $59, respectively, developers can get 2G or 3G-capable board as well as the software and back end cloud service that Spark offers. Add to this $2.99 per month for the data plan and now people building connected products have a new option available that lets them take their devices outside the realm of Wi-Fi networks. Zach Supalla, the CEO of Spark, explained that after the launch of the Spark Core board and the Photon, a postage-stamp sized Wi-Fi development kit, he asked customers what they wanted. Many of them asked for Bluetooth boards, but that wasn’t technically challenging, so he pressed harder.

“We found that many of our customers were using Wi-Fi boards as kind of a hack, like trying to cover a farmer’s field in Wi-Fi to use them,” Supalla said. So he decided to try cellular reasoning that would open up the Spark ecosystem to more industrial applications. So far, the hardware hasn’t been as challenging as getting the connectivity together.

So far, Supalla said has a deal with a Tier 1 carrier for 2G and 3G GSM service in the the U.S. and Canada, and is working on signing more. He’s also working on signing European deals with the goal of offering global coverage. In some cases, it has been tough going because carriers seem more concerned with how much money each new subscription will add as opposed to embracing more flexible pricing for smaller developers to get them on board and hopefully help them grow to a larger business, he said.

While some telcos are changing their tune on this issue, it’s a slog finding the right people inside the company, although Supalla is optimistic. He pointed out that stories such as Tesla have helped make carriers see the value in helping smaller startups and innovators because when one of those hits it big, they can change an entire market in a flash. The carriers don’t want to miss out on the next Tesla.

So he’s launching the Electron, and he’s doing so on Kickstarter, despite having raised $4.9 million in venture backing. One reason for his Kickstarter campaign is to go public, not just with the product, but with the idea that carriers should open up their business models to embrace smaller developers. He’s also hoping to show developers that cellular is a viable option for them, hopefully around the world. The board won’t ship until October, so he has time ti sign up more carrier partners.

As I said last week, when covering Konekt, a Chicago startup with a similar proposition, this is an idea that needs to happen. Flexible cellular connectivity for startups is an essential element for growing the IoT market. And if carriers don’t get on board, entrepreneurs will find a way around them — much to the carriers’ chagrin.

Updated: This story was corrected at 10:40 am to note that Spark does have a carrier partner for Electron in the U.S. and Canada.

Lose something? Here’s a $49 cellular tracker with no monthly fee

The Bluetooth tracker to help people stop leaving their wallet or purse behind has become almost ubiquitous, as has the GPS-based tracker for things that people have deemed a little bit more valuable, such as fleets of cars or even pets. But for those of us who aren’t made of money or who don’t want to pop a heavy module on a child or animal, the newly launched iTraq device looks pretty intriguing.

The product launched on Indiegogo on Wednesday, although it won’t ship until August. What’s cool about it is that it determines its position and location in the world using cellular towers. That means it doesn’t rely on its distance from a phone or its distance from another person’s phone using the app the way many of the Bluetooth trackers out there do.

Products like Tile or the newly launched Pixie work fine if you want a reminder that you’ve left your keys behind, but it can take a long time before you are reunited with a lost item if that item is in a place where not a lot of people are running the device’s app.

With iTraq, the device can be set to ping cell towers at certain times to save on battery life, but when it does ping the towers, it uses triangulation to figure out where it is within 100 feet. Obviously, this can give you too wide a range if you are looking for your lost keys or wallet in an urban area, but it could be useful for a larger item like your bike or your dog. The battery life is up to three years depending on how you set the ping time.

Unlike many other cellular-based devices, the iTraq doesn’t come with a subscription fee. All communication expenses are included in the up-front pricing, which runs from $39 in the first two days of the campaign for first movers and settles out to $49 for one tracker. There are also package deals that range from $129 for three to $196 for five.

But, a word of caution. The iTraq is using a module from a company called [company]GeoTraq[/company], which is traded over the counter and is a relatively unknown entity with no revenue and little history. iTraq purchased $300,000 worth of GeoTraq modules in December, presumably to help build the beta versions of its products and kickstart this campaign. Its most recent filings with the SEC indicate that GeoTraq has assets of $38,241, and will spend at least $200,000 in development, marketing and sales of the technology over the next 12 months.

I’ve reached out to iTraq to understand a bit more about its relationship with GeoTraq and its confidence in the delivery of the modules on which the iTraq product rests, and will update the story when I learn more.

Broadcom wants to get out of the wireless modem business

In a sign of the times, Broadcom is seeking the sale of its baseband business the chips that provide connectivity in cellular phones and modems. This is a win for competitors who have integrated baseband products like Qualcomm, but it’s also a signal that Broadcom would rather focus on wireless technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi that are becoming embedded in more and more devices. The mobile revolution won’t be built on cellular, and as the chip industry becomes more challenging Broadcom wants to focus its R&D where it might count for more.

AT&T and IBM team up around smarter cities

IBM and AT&T are teaming up to share and analyze smart city and utility data so municipalities can react to traffic incidences, energy demand and other potential problems in real time. Through the partnership AT&T will handle the sensor communications and tracking happening over the cellular network and IBM will bring its analytics platforms into play. The two companies are going to build out apps for cities, so right now there’s not a lot to see here except for the possibilities.

What’s AT&T planning? Hidden specs unearthed in the GSM iPhone 5

FCC documentation reveals there are two more LTE bands hidden within AT&T’s version of the new iPhone 5: PCS and cellular. The thing is there are no networks at either frequency today that could connect to the device. Could AT&T be planning a massive network overhaul?

Open Garden raises $2M to create crowdsourced mesh networks

Open Garden, a small San Francisco startup that is helping users create and share their own personal mesh networks for PCs, Macs and Android devices, has raised $2 million from assorted angels. Open Garden is helping promote the idea of social wireless sharing.