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It’s time to start thinking differently about IoT

Feb 23, 20184 mins
Emerging TechnologyInternet of ThingsTechnology Industry

The sooner we stop focusing on the most misguided of IoT applications, the sooner we can realize the field’s full potential – and reap the benefits of the technology that are already here.

Industry 4.0 - industrial IoT internet of things
Credit: Thinkstock

A steady churn of stunningly useless consumer devices has turned IoT into a running joke in the tech community. Worse yet, some applications have gone beyond the silly and into the realm of scary – like internet-connected teddy bears that record your kids (and skimp on security). But there’s a whole other side to IoT. Far removed from the world of consumer gadgetry, IoT is being used behind the scenes to solve real problems and create real value across a wide variety of applications and industries.

When you think of “IoT”, what comes to mind? Internet-connected diapers? “Smart” egg caddies? Or maybe “flip-flops 4.0”, which use the wonder of connectivity for the sole purpose of sending you more targeted advertisements.

Although these products are technically “things that are connected to the internet”, treating them as accurate representations of IoT is more than a little unfair. It’s the equivalent of using ringtones to explain music to someone who’s never heard it before. Yes, it’s sound organized by tone and time. But does anyone actually want to listen to it? In the very same way, these gimmicky products fit the literal definition of IoT, but provide little to no actual value.

So, if smart toasters are “Who Let the Dogs Out” played through a Nokia, who are the Mozarts of IoT?

Real IoT happens behind the scenes

By far and away, the most compelling applications of IoT are the ones that you’ll never interact with. From manufacturing to environmental conservation, IoT is already quietly being used to overcome a wide variety of long-standing challenges.

In manufacturing, for instance, IoT is working to reduce costs and boost efficiencies in a variety of ways. For example, a small, inexpensive temperature sensor can be attached to an internet-connected microcontroller to alert manufacturers when a machine starts to overheat. That way, action can be taken to fix the machine before it breaks, therefore saving money on repairs and avoiding costly downtime on the factory floor.

That might not grab as many headlines as a kettle that learns your tea-drinking habits. But the impact is far, far greater.

And this example speaks to a quality that’s consistent across all the most promising IoT applications — the ability to solve problems before they happen. When used effectively, IoT makes the world around us more transparent. And the more we know about the world around us, the better equipped we are to navigate it.

Real IoT provides real value

Take a company like Opti for example. Opti is using 3G-connected drainage infrastructure to prevent floods and reduce runoff from storms. Their smart storm water systems monitor data from the National Weather Service, then actuate valves depending on expected rainfall. It’s an ingenious application of IoT technology; and more importantly, it works.

Last year, when Hurricane Irma hit, Opti’s installation in Ormond Beach, Florida, saved hundreds of homes from flood damage.  What’s even more impressive is that the exact same platform is also being used to reduce erosion in Oregon and limit sewer overflows in Brooklyn. By integrating different sensors into their platform, Opti is able to mold their solution to the unique needs of each application.

Which brings me to another hallmark of real IoT — flexibility. While the quirkiest, most myopic IoT applications are grabbing all the headlines, the other side of the industry is thriving on adaptability. The steady decline in the cost (and size) of micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology has flooded the market with accurate, inexpensive sensors.

As a result, the number of practicable IoT solutions has skyrocketed. And that’s exactly why you see things like internet-connected toilet paper dispensers. The technology has already arrived; it’s simply outpaced our ability to make good use of it.

Embrace the distinction

Putting smart shower curtains and Opti under the same umbrella is borderline cruel.  Not only is it unfair to the folks at Opti, it threatens to impede the development of an entire field, which is already doing some real good.

When we talk about “transportation,” we don’t treat hoverboards and bullet trains as one in the same. And that’s largely because the field of transportation has already had a couple of millennia to mature. But, the sooner we stop focusing on the most misguided of IoT applications, the sooner we can realize the field’s full potential; and reap the benefits of the technology that are already here.


Zach Supalla is the founder and CEO of Particle, an Internet of Things (IoT) startup that’s making it easier to build, connect and manage internet-connected hardware products deployed at massive scale.

Zach launched Particle on Kickstarter in 2013 with the vision of making the Internet of Things easy and accessible. Particle's tools are used by 50,000 engineers in more than 100 countries and are being used by many Fortune 500 companies to develop and manage fleets of new IoT products. Particle has been featured in Wired, Engadget, TechCrunch, the Discovery Channel, and many other publications and was listed as one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies of 2015. Zach has spoken as an authority on the Internet of Things at prominent events such as OSCON, Solid, Web Summit, GMIC and Launch.

Zach earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management and an MEM (masters in engineering management) from the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern. Before Particle, Zach worked as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company, advising Fortune 500 companies on strategy, operations, and product development. He is a graduate of HAX, the world's first and most prolific hardware accelerator.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Zach Supalla and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.