IoT, Digital Transformation and faster cat videos

Posted on Thursday, August 02, 2018

This thought went through my mind at three separate times in the last week. Once when listening to a new survey on Internet use in Colombia, once when reading a Nokia announcement about a contest to find interesting IoT applications in Brazil and once when reading an email from TMForum.

First the Nokia contest because it is the most straightforward to explain.

You can apply to enter the contest yourself at the above link but this ZDNet article explains it well. Diana Coll, head of LA marketing for the Finnish company was quoted describing the objective as:

“We want to support the longevity of these ventures. For this edition we opted for a focus on solutions, systems, platforms and applications that generate efficiency and intelligence on the realm of industrial automation – and we have a significant contribution to make to the Brazilian manufacturing sector,” Coll said.

I think it is somewhat natural to ask why such a contest is necessary? Why does the Industrial IoT market in Brazil need such contributions from the vendor community? If the real purpose is to inspire developers to take up IIoT what planet have they been hiding on?

The TMForum email was even, in some respects, less easy to understand because it went to a group of industry professionals that self-selected as interested in IoT issues. The question it posed was “what ‘thing’ would you connect?” There have not been many replies but the most interesting one was the idea of a moisture sensor in an orchid because these plants are notoriously easy to either over-water or under-water.

I get the idea of exploiting niches but I doubt the addressable market would justify the required R&D.

Admittedly the purpose was trying to jumpstart a network the TMForum had set up on IoT and they had been having trouble getting the members to contribute. It was a just a fun way to get some dialog going, but all the group could come up with was a moisture sensor?

And why would it need to be connected? You wouldn’t be able to water your orchid unless you were in the house. Wouldn’t a light or a beep be as effective as connecting to your smartphone? If you were away from the plant and it told you it needed water what could you do? OK maybe with some sort of drip device that you could activate remotely. But where is the AI or Big Data opportunity with a single senor connected to a house plant?

As Peggy Lee would ask, is that all there is?

The last inspiration for this blog came from a meeting I attended with the Centro Nacional de Consultoria (CNC), the premier Colombian market research house.

They have started a line of research (on their own coin) into Digital Transformation both in the enterprise sector and the home. I am adapting their terminology somewhat but they distinguish between technology and intention or objective: Digital Transformation does not take place when you merely use technology but when the intention or objective is itself transformative. (The enterprise model is more complex but I don’t need all its richness to make my point.)

As an example, Latin American governments have all bought into the idea that increasing broadband penetration has an impact on productivity and GDP growth. There is no doubt that the two are correlated; the question is which way the arrow of causation points. This blog from more than five years ago discusses the challenge.

But that debate really does not matter: governments believe that increasing broadband penetration and increasing penetration of TECHNOLOGY leads to increased productivity. That means they spend a lot of time studying and worrying about measures of technology penetration like smartphone penetration or how many small businesses have computers.

The CNC study digs deeper into the equation. To put it crudely, if you have the latest smartphone but all you use it for is watching cat videos on Facebook and chatting in WhatsApp you are not contributing to GDP. If however, you are running your business on the web, now we are talking. What matters is technology AND intention.

Even ‘application’ is not correct because I can use Facebook for cat videos or I create a web presence for my business in Facebook or I can use it for e-commerce. The same application with three different intentions; only the third is clearly contributing to Digital Transformation and so, national productivity.

Hence my disappointment or frustration or preoccupation that we are still flopping around trying to figure out what to do with IoT. We have had M2M for decades. There are SigFox networks being deployed in several countries. We are investing a lot of time and money in 5G, a technology for which many of the most compelling use cases are enterprise, Industry 4.0 applications.

And all that a group of industry professionals can come up with is a moisture sensor for a house plant?

Once upon a time, a few decades ago, there was a (not very) broadband-over-copper technology called ISDN. Few remember what ISDN really stood for* but it was commonly described in the industry as “I Still Don’t Need (it)”.

We have the technology (or in the case of 5G we will soon have the technology) but until we figure out what to do with it, until businesses demand one-millisecond latency because they have a burning problem that will only be solved with one-millisecond latency, we will be using our broadband capability for faster cat video downloads.

Governments err when they overly focus on access to technology. (They also err when they don’t facilitate access to technology.) But Digital Transformation is not just about technology. It is about using technology with the intention to transform the way you do business.

*Integrated Services Digital Network which said nothing to clients, which may have been one of its problems.

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