Perfecting IoT operational management

Management is the biggest challenge of the internet of things, but new tools are here to address it

Once considered a hyped-up novelty, IoT has now become a transformational force in the world of business, estimated to be worth $619 billion by 2026. From innovative new startups to major conglomerates, companies of all sizes are searching for ways to take advantage of the opportunities unlocked by IoT.

For example, by connecting a product, businesses can transition from being just a pure hardware provider to become a service provider, which can generate significant recurring revenues. “If you are an existing hardware manufacturer, connecting your product isn’t just another feature, it can totally reshape your business model,” says Pilgrim Beart, chief executive and founder of IoT management company DevicePilot.

Reliance on IoT technologies means high uptime levels are required at all times

Fully embracing IoT can give companies unprecedented insight into not just the condition of their products, but also the user experience. “Businesses can see when, say, a boiler is close to failure or when paper towels in a dispenser are running low. Good for the vendor, as you’re not servicing products unnecessarily, and good for customers because of higher availability levels, as problems are anticipated and addressed before they even occur,” says Mr Beart.

It isn’t only existing products that are being added to IoT; connectivity is making entirely new types of business possible.

Smart food waste company Winnow is one of hundreds of ambitious startups relying on the connectivity offered by IoT. Winnow need to be able to see what their customers are putting in waste bins, so they can provide feedback around menu planning to help clients reduce their waste. Without IoT, their service would be impossible to deliver.

These exciting new IoT-driven firms are highlighting a risk to established businesses. “It’s important that legacy companies understand the potential power of IoT because to some extent, if they do not, they will be replaced by innovative firms with new business models,” says Mr Beart. “IoT is not just a new product feature, it’s a whole new way of doing business.”

Businesses no longer have to wait for customers to call with complaints about products not working. The connected product can flag up problems and perhaps even be fixed before the customer knows. This is a major opportunity to meet customer needs, but only if the entire business becomes more proactive in identifying customer concerns.

Mr Beart has been working at the cutting edge of IoT innovation throughout his career. In 2006, he co-founded smart home platform AlertMe, later purchased by British Gas as the basis for their Hive offering, an experience which gave him unique insight into how IoT companies need tools to help them manage their devices better, rather like a “Google Analytics for IoT”.

“I think IoT was definitely in the ‘gimmick’ category when it first became known, but after the initial explosion of creativity, over time the ecosystem worked itself out and the true value has been discovered,” says Mr Beart. “IoT is now about delivering essential services that power our daily lives and form the basis of business. Whether it be healthcare monitoring, energy production or flood defence systems, IoT is everywhere and increasingly driving our critical systems.”

The growing importance of, and reliance on, IoT technologies means high uptime levels are required at all times, especially as the number of IoT products around the world increases at a massive rate. There will be more than 30 billion IoT devices in operation by 2020, according to Statista.

“Many IoT products are complex and the underlying technology is still immature. If you think about an IoT product, there is a long chain of technologies that all need to work effectively, from in-built software to connected cloud platforms and smartphone apps. The net result of this complexity is that uptime is often pretty poor; in our experience, many IoT services struggle to achieve even 90 per cent uptime,” says Mr Beart.

Even a relatively short downtime in an IoT device can damage both the bottom line and corporate reputation. Not a week goes by when IoT problems aren’t wreaking havoc. Just a few weeks ago, smart home security provider Yale came across an “unforeseen issue” during unplanned maintenance, leading to reports of some customers being locked out of their homes and unable to open their front doors, or arm and disarm their alarms.

According to Mr Beart, businesses need a means of monitoring their customers’ experience closely, so they can be the first to know about potential problems and be able to nip them in the bud.

“Companies need to ask themselves how large must their user-base grow before they invest in an IoT management solution, as the bigger you are, the harder you fall. As an IoT vendor, you become not just responsible for your product, but also for the service that it’s delivering. You can’t just sell your product and forget about how it is being used,” says Mr Beart.

In the past, adding connectivity to a product was a difficult task to achieve and required firms to build almost every aspect themselves from scratch. This time-consuming and expensive process was not ideal, especially as the resulting product would not be compatible with anything else.

But now it’s possible to build many IoT products from off-the-shelf parts, making it radically faster to build a high-quality product. A robust operational management system is one of the vital IoT parts, empowering customer support teams and enabling them to gain actionable insights.

“It’s about the whole customer experience. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. A lot of IoT businesses are running blind; they have no idea what they have deployed and whether it is working properly,” says Mr Beart.

Essentially, it’s a problem of scale. If there are only 100 devices deployed, it’s entirely possible to understand them all manually with a spreadsheet. But as soon as you reach a thousand devices or more, this manual approach becomes unsustainable.

“For a connected product, you need a tool to let you see your customers’ experience in aggregate, to make sure it’s a good experience, and this is what DevicePilot is focused on perfecting,” Mr Beart concludes.

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