Column: John Jones – Collect first, ask questions later

Machine-to-machine communication is nothing really new – companies have been doing it for at least 10 years now. Here at Avnet, we actually had some very high-value projects, mainly because the hardware was so expensive and we needed to use a lot of cellular capacity, which didn’t come cheap. Obviously, the networks still hadn’t really got their heads around the B2B side of their businesses. In fact, they were still almost exclusively focused on consumers.
Today, cellular is pretty cheap, and the network operators are investing a lot in M2M, which they are now calling IoT, but it’s really the same thing. They have come up with lots of new connection tariffs, and companies like Microsoft and IBM are increasingly coming up with standardized cloud services, so the barriers to entry are getting lower and lower. The bottom line is that the cost of IoT is coming down very rapidly, and we now have other ways of connecting. It’s not just cellular, but increasingly its low-bandwidth technology like Sigfox, LoRaWAN or NB-IoT.

John Jones Avnet Silica

The cost of IoT is coming down very rapidly.

John Jones
Director of Innovation Avnet Silica


Or you can put a Bluetooth smart chip in a product, which can run off a coin cell battery for years without needing to be replaced, and connect through a device like a smartphone or a smart tablet which connects to the cloud. Cost is no longer a limiting factor and businesses are asking themselves: “Why not just connect these devices and see what happens?”

In the old days, you needed a very robust business model to justify the investment – which in most cases meant you just didn’t do it. Today you need a substantially lower ROI to persuade your business people to start connecting. It’s now getting to the point where you don’t need any business plan at all to explain ahead of time why you want to start gathering and storing data from machines, applications, clients and customers. This means you can start collecting data frst and then work out what you want to do with them. The result is often astonishing, namely a use case that we never dreamt of before, simply because we didn’t have the data. We can bring in analytics and specialists to tell us how we can add value to our business in ways we’d never thought about, but we wouldn’t have got there if we hadn’t started connecting things in such a very low-cost way. So why not connect first and then work out what to do with the data?

Admittedly, that isn’t really what’s happening in the market quite yet. I think that’s mostly due to lack of confidence on the part of both IT and business departments that still need to understand the huge possibilities. Take one of our big customers, for instance, a manufacturer of office copiers and scanners. They recently founded a business unit that is involved in building management. Its very first use case was literally monitoring how many people were at their desks at any given time and when meeting rooms were occupied. Reports were generated to help customers work out exactly how many offices they needed and they managed to fit up to a third more people into a given office space without compromising on comfort.

Once they had an infrastructure of sensors connected to the cloud, they could start doing other exciting stuff, not just presence detection, but also monitoring room temperatures and the environment in general. They are even starting to analyze the shapes of their offices to determine what kind of office setup they need; not just rows of desks, but maybe more flexible arrangements to improve the quality of the workspace. As costs of connecting continue to decrease, what we need is a better awareness of how we can all create new value out of collecting and analyzing data in new ways. If that happens, businesses will start to routinely ask themselves: “Why not just connect? We can always decide later what to do with the data.”