Story of IoT remains unwritten

A group of individuals, most with some kind of connection the technology industry, got together this week in an old industrial building near downtown Ottawa to talk about the Internet of Things (IoT).

The conference, called IoT613, was held in a setting not typical for events catering to white-collar, tech-industry types. The floors and walls were concrete, telling of a past somehow related to warehousing or construction with little to do with computers, software or mobile technology.

It was in a place called the City Centre building, yet this is a spot that has lost its economic prominence in recent decades. It’s a less-than-inviting environment, particularly for a pedestrian with a lack of sidewalks to and around the building. The conference itself was entered from an unobvious area at the back of the building, so organizers were outside to guide people to where they needed to go.

Yet, this is in a district city planners see big things for. With a downtown light-rail system being built as we speak, in three years this spot will serve as the intersection of Ottawa’s two LRTs, with the current north-south route already there. Millions of square feet of office and condominium space is expected to be built here in the coming years, largely as a result of the advantages its status as a premiere transit hub will bring.

Parallels might be drawn between this small part of Ottawa and the promising but uncertain future that awaits IoT.

Some speakers at the event, such as Emeka Nwafor, a senior director with Intel subsidiary Wind River, told attendees that IoT has been with us for many years, but it’s just recently that people gave it a name.

Nonetheless, he said various things are coming together, such as declining costs for things like bandwidth, processing technology and sensors, that make this the ideal time to get involved in this market space.

“Some people think it’s hype,” Nwafor said of IoT. “It’s not. It’s reality.”

He provided an easy-to-understand definition for what IoT is, being a collection of devices that have their own IP addresses that can communicate with other machines that also have IP addresses. It’s being used for a variety of functions  (subs only) right now, including the tracking of vehicles, collection of data in restaurants and retail operations, and helping people automate utilities at home.

Yet a panel discussion at this event about the future of IoT illustrated how predicting exactly how this form of technology will play out in the years ahead is a fool’s game.

“I think that anybody that says the future is predictable is full of shit,” said Rob Woodbridge, moderator of the discussion and a host of video segments on Untether.tv, a website that explores issues of mobile technology.

For example, he noted how people could not have predicted 10 or 20 years ago that smartphones would become the primary screen most people interact with today.

He asked panel members if they foresee a “tipping point” for when IoT becomes a common thing in people’s lives or when the masses finally “get it.”

Edward Ocampo-Gooding, a developer at Shopify, replied: “I don’t know how important it is to distinguish whether we’re at that tipping point yet. I think that it’s just going to slowly creep into our lives and just become a ubiquitous thing, and we’re probably not going to even notice it.”

There was some discussion of whether dominant operating systems or protocols would emerge for IoT to simplify things for developers and consumers alike, much like iOS and Android have done for mobile devices.

It was acknowledged that many of the products and services out there are attempts to capitalize on the novelty of IoT rather than offer true value.

For example, Ocampo-Gooding recalled a Kickstarter campaign he came across where someone was trying to sell reusable laundry detergent that came with a WiFi chip, resulting in the user being electronically notified when the laundry cycle was over plus other analytics about the wash.

In an exchange later in the panel discussion, Ocampo-Gooding was put off when an audience member asked if such gimmicky products were hurting the overall credibility of IoT.

“People are going to make weird stuff. Sometimes people are going to consider it an art form. That’s OK,” he replied.

He later elaborated: “I think it’s really easy to be cynical about new things. I think it’s really easy to point at the kid in your class that’s wearing his hat in a funny way and we’re like, ‘Look at that weirdo.’

“I totally understand where you’re coming from. … Look at all this gimmicky shit that we’re making. … But I think if we’re going to embrace this, the way to do it is to recognize nobody’s ever going to buy a thing because it has the IoT in it. They’re going to buy it because it’s going to help them do something interesting or make them laugh or something along those lines.”

The key to succeeding in IoT, he said, is simply to “go and build something awesome.”

Getting back to the setting where this conference was held, for someone who just happened to be in the vicinity Thursday or Friday, they would have seen several signs around them saying “IoT.” However, they might have been confused about what it was all about or where to go if they wanted to participate.

Derek Abma is editor of The Wire Report. He can be reached at dabma@thewirereport.ca.

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Tracking where you are will soon be a $40-billion business

Most Canadians with a smartphone know that certain apps are keeping track of their location, for example, when they order a ride from Uber or monitor the distance they’ve jogged.

But they may not be aware that other apps on their phone — like the free game Angry Birds — are also tracking where they are. So are retailers and wireless providers, as part of an industry projected to grow almost fivefold in the next four years.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre put out a report (subs only) Tuesday, asking both the CRTC and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to do more research on the practice of tracking Canadians through their mobile devices. PIAC concluded that it’s “not clear if Canada’s privacy regime is sufficiently responsive to Canadians’ concerns with location-based informational privacy.”

A phone survey PIAC commissioned in 2014 showed that 30 per cent of respondents said they didn’t know whether or not their smartphones were subject to tracking, while 77 per cent of respondents were very or somewhat uncomfortable with the concept, according to the report.

And there are a number of different ways Canadians’ whereabouts are monitored. Location tracking is being increasingly integrated into more and more apps, for instance. Some telecom companies are commercializing their ability to know where your phone is. Rogers, for instance, has a service that texts customers who have signed up when they are near a participating retail location. And the use by businesses of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is growing, PIAC said.

Some stores have sensor systems known as mobile location analytics (MLA), which allows retailers to track mobile devices within their range, gather data like how many repeat visitors stores have, store wait times and ratios of employees to customers.

In one example cited by the PIAC report, a Toronto restaurant using services provided by Turnstyle Analytics Inc. started carrying workout tops with its logo because it knew that 250 of its customers had been to the gym that month.

There are also companies that gather information from multiple sources and resell it. Toronto-based Via Informatics Inc. buys location data from wireless providers and collects data from sensors that detect WiFi and Bluetooth-enabled devices, and from geo-stamped social media posts. It aggregates the customer profiles and related analytics, and sells them to “businesses and public entities that want to know more about the customers that are found in their physical locales,” the report said.

Knowing where you are is worth a lot of money. PIAC cited a forecast from a U.S. research company called MarketsandMarkets that said the global location-based services market will grow from $8.12 billion US in 2014 to $38.87 billion US in 2019.

But whether that means regulatory bodies in Canada will start paying more attention is unclear.

The CRTC declined to comment on PIAC’s call to hold a fact-finding process into “into the collection, use, and disclosure of location information by telecommunications service providers.”

PIAC also said the Office of the Privacy Commissioner should look into consumer awareness and expectations regarding the practice, and “produce clear guidance on the level of consent required from smartphone users before their location can be collected.”

Privacy commissioner spokeswoman Tobi Cohen said in email that while the office is “certainly aware of this report and are reviewing it with interest,” she couldn’t say “at this point in time whether we will be developing guidance that focuses specifically on the form of consent required with respect to location data and smartphones.”

Anja Karadeglija is senior reporter at The Wire Report. She can be reached at akarad@thewirereport.ca.

 

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