The thing about the Internet of Things, says Cees Links, is that "it's very thingy."
It's not that Links, a pioneer of the wireless data industry, doesn't see the connection between the Internet of Things and the things themselves, but all the focus on the actual devices, he says, is missing the point and making everyone confused about what the business opportunity and actual potential for the industry is.
Links should know. A visionary leader in the world of wireless who has spent much of his career bringing the world of mobile computing and continuous networking together, Links started his career at NCR Computers where he was responsible for the development and launch of the world's first wireless LAN product in 1990 -- a major innovation at that time. Throughout several acquisitions and divestitures (NCT, AT&T, Lucent Technologies, and Agere Systems), Links continued his work in the wireless LAN area, which he managed to turn into a multi-hundred-million-dollar business for Agere Systems. He even closed a deal with Apple Computer in 1999, igniting the growth of the wireless LAN industry. Through the Apple deal, wireless LANs went on to become a standard notebook feature.
As if that wasn't enough, Links was also instrumental in the establishment of the IEEE 802.11 standardization committee and the WiFi Alliance, as well as helping to establish the IEEE 802.15 standardization committee to become the basis for the ZigBee sense and control networking technology and standardization.
The IoT Is a Service Application. The relevant IoT discussion is not so much about sensors or about communication standards, the IoT is about data collection, analytics and self-learning systems that can quantify life. Cees Links will talk about how the IoT becomes a new source for wealth creation in our complex society and in our exciting lives in the ESC Engineering Theater at ESC Silicon Valley, Dec. 6-8, 2016 in San Jose, Calif. Register here for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company, UBM.
In late 2004 he went to work with GreenPeak Technologies, now Qorvo, a fabless semiconductor company with a strong focus on wireless for ultra-low-power sense and control networks for remote controls for consumer electronics like TVs and set-top boxes and applications like security and home automation. So when Links talks about "things," you know he knows a thing or two about them.
The focus on things, posits Links, takes away from the real value IoT provides, which he believes lies in the realm of services.
Take the FitBit, for example. Marketed as a fitness band, it's true value could be as part of a broader lifestyle service, one that should make the wearer holistically healthier in the long run.
Companies like FitBit, and others in the IoT space, don't seem to have grasped the difference between what they potentially have and what they are selling, said Links, noting that data is still not being used in an optimized way, nor is it being made particularly actionable. This, Links says, is also where the term "smart" fails, because as advanced as some of these gadgets are, they still aren't particularly clever in terms of piecing together relevant bits of data and carrying out the next logical step.
The lack of sophistication on a service level means that a "smart" water meter, for example, can be perfectly good at digitally notifying you of your water usage, but can't yet turn off a faucet that has accidentally been left on, prevent a flood, or even necessarily notify you of one. Likewise, a "smart" thermostat can keep upping the heating of your house if it senses the temperature dropping below a certain level, but it can't simply close the accidentally left-open window that's letting the cold air in (and heat out) or tell its user the source of the problem. Just like people, things, it turns out, would be much better if they just pulled together and collaborated.
"In reality, the smart home would be a [digital] butler who helps you to live your life more comfortably and energy efficiently while making sure everything is more safe and secure," said Links. "It would be like having somebody in your house checking that nobody was in a room and then switching off the light or the air conditioner. Or if nobody was in the house at all, making sure the backdoor was locked."
Until companies stop marketing "things" over services, the industry is simply not getting the point, says Links.
"If things are not marketed right, people don't understand the value, and if people don't understand the value they just use a FitBit for a few weeks and then they throw it aside. That's what we are seeing a lot right now."
Indeed, FitBit shares recently took a plunge on news that the company was seeing a drop in sales and cutting its full-year earnings. The company also admitted that about 20% of Fitbit activations this quarter were reactivations by people who hadn't used Fitbit for 90 days or more. This reinforces Links' view that "things" without comprehensive services to back them up and make them compelling are short-lived.
"The underlined theme of the Internet of Things is being able to make better decisions faster," said Links, noting that being able to make better decisions faster would also be a source of job creation.
"The whole industry is capable of analyzing data and making sense out of it, extracting knowledge out of data, or at least extracting information out of data," he added.
This, said Links, would require a new class of engineers that would build things that are generally safer and more secure, while activating mathematicians to do data mining and data analysis to contribute to overall system design.
"I think the hardware engineers have done their job, at least at this stage, now it's very much up to the software engineers being able to build out the systems, and the engineers who do data analytics."
Links said the most frequent questions and concerns he hears revolve around the privacy and security of the various "things" collecting data and saving it to the cloud. People often ask him how to make the systems safer, more friendly, and easier to install.
Join Cees Links in the ESC Engineering Theater. Links will be in the ESC Engineering Theater at ESC Silicon Valley, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 at 11 a.m. Register here for the event, hosted by Design News’ parent company, UBM.
"People have very many concerns about standards, and many concerns about security," he acknowledged, but added that privacy and security were not specific to the IoT, but to the Internet in general, and also to the physical world. One could theoretically just as easily lose the physical keys to one's house as to have one's digital lock hacked.
"I have only one main pitch and that is for companies to understand how they can make money and with what type of service, and then to start implementing that service." It's inevitable, said Links, that technical challenges would crop up along the way, "but those are the things that you then need to resolve. Don't start with things like 'what communication standard do I need to use?' or with some hardware design. It is very much 'how can I make money and with what type of service' and then tracking back from there."
Links said there are four simple tenets to overall system design, "you need sensors, you need data analytics, you need an application, and you need a billing and support system." Everything else, he said, is simply "a lot of distraction" over "nice sensors" which Links believes are just a "small part of the whole game."
Ultimately, Links is still an idealist. "I believe that a connected world is a better world, and I think we can do a lot with the technology to make our lives better, to make the world better, by creating connectivity. Connecting the world is the greatest thing to live by as an engineer."
A regular speaker on the tech conference circuit and a Senior Director at FTI Consulting, Sylvie Barak is an authority on the electronics space, social media in a b2b context, digital content creation and distribution. She has a passion for gadgets, electronics, and science fiction.