At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco chief executive John Chambers said the Internet of Things (IoT) will generate $19 trillion in revenue by 2020. He went on to say, “It will be bigger than anything that’s ever been done in high tech.”

This from a CEO and a company desperately struggling to stay relevant.

Not to be a buzz kill, but overhyping the next big thing isn’t exactly new to the tech industry or the media that covers it. Unless your 3-D virtual reality avatar is reading this on a superconducting computer in Second Life, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The irony is that all the real innovations that changed our lives sort of crept up on us.

Pundits thought Apple (AAPL) was crazy to get into the dog-eat-dog cell phone business. In 2007, John Dvorak wrote, “Apple should pull the plug on the iPhone. There is no likelihood that Apple can be successful in a business this competitive.”

Google (GOOG) founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were told by dozens of VCs that a standalone Web-search company wouldn’t go anywhere. And nobody saw word processing, personal computers, the Internet, or social media coming. And I mean nobody.

So forgive me if I dispense with all the wild fish tales of refrigerators that know they’re about to run out of milk and eggs and order their own food, sensor-laden ingestible nanobots that can diagnose and cure what ails you, and prescient cities that know when disaster is about to strike.

Yes, that is all plausible – eventually – but for once I thought I’d keep it real and tell you what goodies the IoT might bring before you’re too old for it to matter. First, it helps to know what the heck we’re talking about.

What is it and why do we need it?

The best way to understand the IoT is by comparing it to something we all know. The Internet is a web of interconnected networks (thus inter-net) that allows people to communicate information to others. And each node on the network has a smart router that sends and receives information.

Likewise, the IoT is a web of interconnected sensor networks that automatically communicate data to people and computers in the cloud. Each node on the network consists of a tiny smart device with built-in sensors and circuitry for monitoring, communicating, and controlling just about anything in the physical world.  

Why do we need it? The world is now full of complex machines and systems. It’s too expensive and time consuming to manage them efficiently. Instead, we’ll have millions of smart sensor networks that allow us to virtually and automatically monitor and control systems, machines, resources, and assets.

This is actually nothing new. Japan has had smart highways with displays that warn drivers of congestion and offer alternative routes since the 1980s. Modern cars and engines are full of smart-sensor networks. We already have loads of smart factories, buildings, and homes. And our cities and energy grids are getting smarter all the time.

Going forward, there are three major categories that I think will hit closer to home and impact your lives in material ways that may prove to make you safer, healthier, and more effective at your jobs.  

Automotive Safety

Add a few sensor networks and you can significantly reduce the number and severity of auto accidents by alerting drivers to potentially dangerous situations such as collisions, tire blowouts, and brake failures before they happen. We can’t entirely eliminate accidents but we can easily make cars much smarter and safer.   

Sure, it will initially add cost, but that will come down in time. We went through the same learning curve with power steering and brakes, fuel injection, airbags, and anti-lock brakes. Today’s cars are already full of embedded microprocessors, sensors, and networks. They can handle a few more.   

Personal Health Care

Considering how full of technology our home and work lives have become, modern health care is still in the dark ages. While there are thousands of third-party applications, electronic devices, and large-scale software systems, none of them talk to each other. It’s a fragmented mess that’s long overdue for integration and de facto standardization.

Enter Apple. The tech giant is readying the launch of HealthKit, a personal health information system that will use sensors in Apple’s iWatch and other devices to monitor blood pressure, pulse, weight and other data and upload it to the cloud. Apple is reportedly working with a host of health-care providers and software makers to integrate HealthKit with their systems and apps.  

Whether that effort is successful or not, it is only a matter of time before the health-care industry joins the rest of us in the 21st century … if federal and state regulators don’t screw it up.    

Enterprise Business

At the risk of overhyping Apple: While its recently announced enterprise pact with IBM does face significant challenges, there is enormous potential to put big data analytics into the hands of workers and decision-makers across a wide range of markets and industries such as retail, insurance, banking, and airlines.

The two companies are already working to co-develop hundreds of apps for vertical markets and IBM (IBM) has said it will deploy 100,000 consultants and salespeople to accelerate the penetration of iOS devices such as iPad and iPhone – which IBM will resell – into the enterprise.

Given the size of this joint effort by two technology giants, I think it’s safe to say that many of you will have a lot more data to make smart decisions at your fingertips in the not-too-distant future.

During his CES address, Cisco’s Chambers added a prophecy, "If you look back a decade from today at the impact of the Internet of Everything, I predict you will see it will be five to 10 times more impactful than the whole Internet has been today.”

Hyperbole if I’ve heard it, especially considering that much of the impact of the IoT will be transparent to you. Still, if it makes you safer, healthier, and better at your job, who am I to question it?

 

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive. He runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting where he advises executives and business leaders on anything and everything. Contact Tobak.

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