Growing the IoT: It’s All About the Apps

The Internet of Things suffers from a mixed reputation.

It’s defined by Harvard economics Professor Michael Porter as the third wave of technology transformation that will transform competition. But it’s also criticized as an over-hyped buzzword, lacking proof-points of real-world changes.

That’s been changing over the past several years, according to Russ Fadel, president of Thingworx, a PTC business.

Speaking at LiveWorx, Fadel reflected upon accelerating IoT growth in manufacturing.

What is the secret behind the change from vision to reality? The ability for companies to easily implement apps for connected products, service and operations.

Fadel recounted the creation of ThingWorx, and his assessment at the time that the IoT was “full of opportunity, but had little action.” Without available apps, connected products don’t provide the value needed to drive adoption. Citing a smart farming example, Fadel argued that even the most robust collection of sensors and hardware is like “one hand clapping,” if there is not a supporting network of complementary applications.

From weather forecasting, to predictive irrigation and preventative maintenance of farm machinery, apps are the critical components that provide connection between these smart things. Apps enable automation and integrate individual products into systems. Apps are instrumental in collecting sensor data, and transforming that data into actionable intelligence—whether through directly monitored dashboards, or big data engines that analyze petabytes of data.

And it was precisely these apps that were missing from the equation. Fadel recognized that getting apps into smart products would be the secret to unlocking the value of the IoT, and to accelerating its growth.

Having a network of supporting apps is critical, but it’s also been one of the biggest challenges to organizations.

Using the metaphor of an iceberg, Fadel described the amount of effort required to “IoT-ize” their product offerings. For most businesses, app development is the tip sticking above the water, just 20 percent of a company’s development resources. Conversely, 80 percent of effort lurks “beneath the surface” in the form of the supporting infrastructure.

Including everything from data management to connectivity and security, infrastructure is absolutely necessary. But it also requires a tremendous amount of cross-disciplinary talent and expertise to establish. In other words, building IoT infrastructure is really difficult. Simply assembling the right team is a challenge. This iceberg model of effort is a losing proposition, and Fadel saw that his future with ThingWorx would be tied to delivering infrastructure—that hidden 80 percent—to companies.

Through a complete stack of IoT infrastructure technology, from connectivity partnerships, standards-agnostic connectors, hardware certification, and a rapid app-development platform, manufacturers could focus on the more achievable task of assembling and building apps. Fadel argues that ThingWorx’s infrastructure has helped flipped the ratio of effort, with companies focusing primarily on building apps on top of a prepared infrastructure. As proof of this, companies are now building apps 10 times faster, and at a fraction of the cost.

Citing analyst projections that size the total number of smart, connected products at 50 billion over the next five years, and one trillion by 2035, Fadel said that hundreds of millions of apps will be necessary to support the things in the IoT.

With the development of the ThingWorx Marketplace, partner ecosystems, and the growth of off-the-shelf apps, Fadel sees these growth estimates achievable, likely, and evidence that apps are the secret behind the Internet of Things.

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Photo by Brian Smith