Around the world, millions of smart devices are manufactured every day. Each has a low-powered processor, one or more sensors, wired or wireless network hardware, and the capacity to store data. They are cameras, locks, fridges, drones, phones, watches, clothes, and furniture. They are in our buildings, vehicles, transport and utility infrastructure, garbage cans, and shipping containers.
By 2020, the internet of things will be composed of over twenty billion devices. Their sensors monitor our environment, track the movement and location of assets and people, observe and report the condition of equipment, and watch over our homes and offices.
The already rapid growth of the internet of things will accelerate. 5G networks, which are now under construction, offer lower-latencies, greater bandwidths, and consume less power than existing mobile networks, qualities which are perfect for low-cost, lightweight, smart devices.
Small businesses have been slow to adapt to the internet of things. Large corporations have the IT staff and budgets to build bespoke IoT infrastructure and software, whereas smaller businesses rely on readymade systems. Until recently, off-the-shelf IoT solutions have not been readily available or have been aimed at the consumer market. As Tom Rebbeck puts it:
“With few off-the-shelf enterprise solutions available, interested SMEs must put together their own solutions: hardware, connectivity, hosting, applications and so on.”
Manufacturers are working to bring secure and robust business-focused IoT solutions to market, and there is no doubt that the demand for IoT solutions for small businesses will drive a thriving market over the next few years.
But why should small businesses care about the IoT in the first place? What can it do for them?
The most important benefit of the internet of things is more and better data. Location data is the most obvious example. Historically, it was not possible for a business to know where an asset was in the world. Today, we can track people, equipment, vehicles, and cargo with precision. Location data has revolutionized many industries, and it holds great potential for small businesses, with applications that range from shipping and inventory tracking and equipment monitoring to marketing.
Other examples of enhanced data availability include security monitoring, premises utilization, equipment failure detection, and more.
The availability of more data — and real time data — presents businesses with automation opportunities. Small businesses today are saving money on heating, lighting, and security costs by using smart devices and intelligent monitoring software to control office environments.
The internet of things can empower businesses to implement cost-effective process and to take control of their environment, but it also creates new markets and new channels through which to interact with consumers. Amazon takes a leading role here: its Echo range of smart devices provide reliable and robust voice control for IoT hubs that control home automation equipment. Amazon also offers business-focused versions of its hardware.
But the main lesson to learn from Amazon is the importance of integrating your products and services with IoT technology. That might be as simple as creating a “skill” that brings your business to the Echo platform. Or it may be as ambitious as creating custom applications and hardware that leverage the internet of things to encourage consumer engagement with your business.
The internet of things brings benefits and challenges to small businesses. Security is the biggest challenge. As we bring more connected devices into our networks, we must be vigilant — cheap IoT devices don’t have a great track record where security is concerned.
But, in spite of the challenges, there is no doubt that small business owners should be investigating how the internet of things could bring greater insight, efficiency, and control of their business.