Why is the Plug-n-Play Promise of IoT Not Helping?

by Anand Tamboli

The Internet of Things has been around for quite some time and is now stabilising in the primary market. It is a good thing, because of all the noise during hype-cycle, there was too much to digest.

Now that the tide has subsided, we see meaningful deployments of IoT solutions, and they are on the rise.

However, I can say that things are far from settled, especially from a commercial and industrial roll-out perspective. Projects are still taking longer than usual. There is no standard definition of what is normal.

Last month in a forum, a question was raised. “If IoT solutions are always showcased as easy to implement/deploy and use, then why so much fuss about it?” My short answer was, “If only it were easy! However, the fact is, IoT solutions are anything but easy."

Why is it hard?

Before an organisation can start any project, IoT or not, it usually goes through a series of strategic discussions. These discussions are mainly around corporate strategy in the long run. Later stages mainly discuss the merits of the project, return on investment, break-even, and several other criteria. Typically, you would also prepare a business case for large (by $ or by time) projects.

However, once the strategy and business case are in place, an organisation needs to take care of a few things. These few things include hardware strategy, communications strategy, middleware-cloud platform strategy, product and service strategy, industrial designs, certifications, data privacy & security, various compliances, device security, integration of multiple platforms & enterprise systems, project change management, on the ground procedures, customer education, and technician education.

The fact is, an IoT solution is an overarching solution that is made up of several modular solutions. A "system of systems" as I would call it. You must work with numerous vendors, various ecosystem partners, and people from different departments to create a coherent and meaningful system.

This hidden complexity of the IoT solution makes it harder to navigate through. If you do not have enough resources, and are not well informed, this can be a significant challenge.

Some vendors promise the contrary

I might be picking on a few vendors’ behaviours here, but that has been the reality all the while. Here are a few things you may have heard:

  • Hardware vendor: "We are cloud-agnostic! Our hardware can work with any cloud/middleware platform. It is plug-and-play."
  • Cloud or IoT platform vendor: "We are hardware-agnostic! Our platform can work with any hardware or software. Our platform is plug-and-play."
  • Application/mobile app vendor: "We are cloud-agnostic! We make progressive apps that are compatible with everything!" + the plug-and-play promise.
  • Network providers: "We provide the media and backend systems, which are cloud and hardware-agnostic!" + the same plug-and-play promise.
  • Other: "If you know how to use a mobile phone, you can use our product!" + the plug-and-play promise.

The truth

Buying off-the-shelf IoT platforms and hardware does not necessarily solve most problems. IoT hardware is not (and cannot be) plug-and-play.

Hardware-software integration challenges are often thorny at a technical level. Commercial convolutions related to the hardware ownership, warranties, lock-ins, and several other factors are the cherry on top.

The critical chain of IoT solution is fragmented, and there are several weak links. Every link that joins two heterogeneous systems is a weak link.

So, this is where you should be looking for someone who understands the system. A system integrator (or SI as we usually would call it) would be a key contributor in making sense of this mixed bag. The SI would be responsible for stitching them together and creating a coherent solution for you.

Whether you establish this (SI) function in-house as a part of a project team, or bring in external support, or do both (hybrid), the end results would depend upon your team’s capability, timeframe, budget, and other relevant factors.

Be aware that your traditional IT team would not be able to help much here. IoT systems are different beasts altogether.

IT ≠ IoT

The crux of the matter

Plug-and-play promises are not helping. They are instead becoming detrimental to the IoT success story. These promises are becoming perfect examples of the over-promise & under-deliver.

Relying on the promises of plug-and-play solutions will take us nowhere. We have to fix the critical chain IoT solution ourselves by working on weak links of integration. 

Get external help if necessary. Make sure that internal capability is building in the process. Add IoT capability in IT or in the product vertical. In the long run, it will work in your favour.

Do not relinquish control of the overall solution, even for free. Eventually, the IoT solution will have to be part of the integrated fabric of your whole operation. Only you can make it work in the best way that suits your organisation.

Be cautious of promises of plug-and-play or drag-and-drop solutions. They are red herrings in the world of IoT.

About the Author

Anand Tamboli has built several technology systems over the last two decades; small, medium, large, and everything in between. During this period he has garnered deep expertise in various technologies and domains, such as internet of things, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data science. He is the founder of Knewron Technologies, Australia. With technology as a passion, Anand helps businesses increase efficiency and productivity by leveraging emerging technologies. Sane and sensible adoption of technology is his current area of focus.

This article was contributed by Anand Tamboli, author of Build Your Own IoT Platform.