|By Esmeralda Swartz||
|March 28, 2014 10:15 AM EDT||
Companies that until recently had never heard of the Internet of things (IoT) are now excited to find that they've been IoT players all along. Businesses involved in home automation, security services, vehicle tracking and health monitoring to name a few have been around for a while. They all provide services that involve devices (now known as "things") that communicate with each other, with their owners, and sometimes with control centers. Increasingly that channel of communication is via the Internet. Therefore, they all see themselves as IoT service providers now, and rightly so. But they are also specialists in the actual services they provide, and the fact that we have an increasingly popular expression to describe the infrastructure they use does not diminish the need for that expertise. While IoT brings additional challenges and opportunities, it doesn't remove the need to retain business methods and strategies that remain appropriate for the specialist area, even in a rapidly changing world.
At the same time, companies that have built and sold business support systems for years - billing, order management and CRM - are kind of excited to find that they are also in the IoT business. Their systems can work even in this new world of IoT, and they are proud to publish the fact, inviting the world to participate in seminars, webinars, etc., highlighting this marvel. These billing vendors are being rather vocal and shouting loudly from the rooftops that the Internet of Things economy is happily meeting the world of subscriptions, so jump on board the bandwagon. We shouldn't be surprised. After all, a billing system that is optimized generically for subscription services can bill for recurring revenue services such as subscriptions in an IoT environment too, provided, of course, that the service provider accepts the premise that IoT is just another subscription service.
An Overly Simplistic View of the Internet of Things
There is a view that with IoT becoming a reality, it's rather simple. Politicians and commentators are fond of telling us that IoT means a new exciting future in which the fridge decides when to order more food. That example has stood the test of time: it has been with us since the closing years of the 20th century. In the movie The 6th Day, released in 2000, Arnold Schwarzenegger had a smart Internet-connected fridge (which might be the most memorable thing about that movie). Internet-connected fridges were sold in 2002, but without much success, and just last week a British politician regurgitated the cliché. Maybe he'd just seen the movie.
Many descriptions of mainstream IoT services tend to emphasize sensors and monitoring, with a degree of autonomous actions (alarms for example) to help people out, but mostly these services feed information into data centers for storage and analysis. This is where concepts such as home automation, energy management, health monitoring, security monitoring and vehicle tracking all started. But already we can see the emergence of smarter and more sophisticated systems, such as those with the ability to identify a need for medication, and trigger an Internet-connected implant to deliver a dose. Systems don't just notice an intruder and raise an alarm, they also can lock paths of exit and attempt facial recognition of intruders. IoT services can track vehicle movements, assess anomalous behavior and call for help when needed. All of this happens in near-real time. It isn't directly controlled by humans, although humans set the rules of behavior. It is not driven directly by data analysis, but data analysis contributes to creating the semi-persistent rules for appropriate actions.
What I am describing here are "agents": the devices and systems that make rules-driven decisions and enact transactions on behalf of the device's owner. Agent systems have been with us for a long time, even pre-Internet. The least-cost routing algorithms that telecom carriers and some large enterprises use for determining the routing of voice telephony calls are agents. The automated trading systems now commonly used to supplement humans in the stock market are also agents. The automatic assignment and configuration of network capacity and network functionality in emerging programs such as software-defined networks (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) will, in effect, be conducted by agents working on behalf of carriers and infrastructure owners. Agents are becoming an essential part of the IoT nervous system, and any business that is aiming to make money from IoT needs to understand that.
Individuals and businesses will employ agents that interact with cloud orchestration systems to continually optimize the portfolio of services consumed by their human owners, based on owner-defined criteria of cost, functionality and performance. Some agents will be smart enough to subcontract some of the load to other, more specialized agents. The agents will be fed data by sensors and monitors, will receive analysis from aggregation centers to inform decisions, and will give instructions for action to other devices.
With agents in the system, we can see that the simple view of sensors monitoring and actuators performing chores, with a data center acting as broker, is just too simple. Agents will enable and manage complex processes, decision trees and relationships. Agents will bring to the wider world many of the management and control concepts that have been tried and tested within the walled gardens of factories, hospitals, power plants and data centers. Agents could even provide citizens with cross-checked and validated data about the world that will help them understand whether politicians are repeating authenticated facts or are just making them up.
Burgeoning sophistication can bring lots of benefits, provided we don't lose sight of what is really going on. But humans do like to over-simplify, even as the world naturally evolves into something more complicated.
Why One-Trick Billing Systems Don't Cut It with IoT
That brings us back to billing systems that need to monetize the IoT. There are lots of billing systems out there, and many of them are rather simple. These simple systems support only a narrow range of products or services, or they support only one type of pricing or charging model. These are one-trick billing systems, and they are good for one-trick service providers that don't plan to be anything else. Agents will certainly drive the generation of new and more nuanced business models as the concept of a service itself becomes more amorphous. IoT will inevitably bring a need for more, not less, sophistication and complexity, and we need systems, including billing systems, that can handle the complexity challenge.
I will share more thoughts on one-trick billing systems in my next blog, but in the meantime, read what more about the Internet of Things.
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