So What’s With This IoT Stuff Anyway?

Yesterday’s announcement by NXP that they had completed their acquisition of Freescale Semiconductor got me to thinking about IoT (Internet of Things) again.  I’ve designed several “things”, and Freescale was a supplier of a number of microprocessors used in IoT things.  We also have used several of Freescale’s Kinetis series ARM based microcontrollers in some industrial products.  We have been hearing a lot of marketing hype about IoT for the last several years now, and IoT is starting to look a lot like the so-called home automation market which has been next year’s big thing for the last 30 years.

Two things impede the growth of the home automation market: 1. there’s no ‘killer app’ for it; 2. it’s simply too complicated to deal with for the vast majority of people.  In the case of IoT, what’s holding it back from wider adoption is similar: 1. there’s no universal ‘killer app’ for it; 2. ROI (return on investment) can be hard to come by; 3. complexity of implementation; 4. security concerns.  Of all these factors, the number one stumbling block to wider IoT deployment is surely ROI.  If a business case can be made for applying IoT then it will get done.  Complex issues with implementation and deployment are all solvable given enough time and effort, particularly if there are significant savings to be realized once the system is deployed and in operation.

The NXP merger with Freescale and the resultant company’s focus on automotive electronics points to one likely area for widespread deployment of IoT devices in the future.  Cars are getting ever more complicated and difficult to service.  As the mechanical quality of cars has improved overall in recent years, the greater electronic content of motor vehicles is increasingly becoming the failure point where things go wrong.  In our fleet typically the first step in troubleshooting any problem these days is to reach for the laptop and connect the OBD-2 diagnostic dongle and see what the car thinks is wrong with itself.  Most mechanics I know would rather pull an engine than troubleshoot an electrical problem in a modern vehicle.  Having vehicles connected to the internet could help maintain them and troubleshoot issues when the need arises.  Widespread collection of operational and fault data would lead to improved reliability and provide mechanics with guidance for fixing specific problems quickly.  This helps the auto companies by reducing warranty related costs.  Saab for example has a detailed troubleshooting procedure for any number of system issues.  Always the very last thing to do is to swap out the ECU (Engine computer unit) to attempt to fix a problem.  All replaced ECU’s are required to be returned to Saab for analysis.  They found that 97% of the returned ECU’s were functioning perfectly.  This points out the fact that most mechanics and technicians don’t actually troubleshoot problems, they just change boxes until the problem goes away.  Having vehicles continually monitored would likely eliminate a lot of this ‘box changing’, particularly if the vehicle, via the internet, could tell the techs exactly what was needed to fix the problem.  Ah, you say, just another excuse for people not to think and not really learn how things work?  Unfortunately people aren’t learning anyway, so the machines need to take matters into their own hands.  The reason the robots are taking over is that people aren’t keeping up with the increasing complexities of modern life.

IoT for the general public is simply not going anywhere.  Why does my refrigerator, microwave or washing machine need to be connected to the internet, or even my local network at home?  Blimey, refrigerators have been around for almost 100 years now, and they’ve gotten along fine until now without being “connected”.  Where’s the killer application here in the consumer world for universal connectivity?  Looking a little more closely at this, a lot of the hype appears to be driven by sales and marketing types looking for new ways to get advertising in front of people.  Instrumenting your pantry is being contemplated in order to push reminders to your smart phone that you’re about to run out of laundry detergent.  This is just too gimmicky for the vast majority of consumers, just like home automation in general.