Thornton May: IT and the Internet of Things

In 1998, at the conclusion of the CIO Leadership Development classes I taught at UCLA and UC Berkeley, we asked the attendees to complete the sentence, "15 years from now..." Serendipitously, 15 years later, I came across a file folder with the responses.

I was pleasantly surprised that several executives, citing the doubling of computer power every 18 months, storage capacity every 12 months and bandwidth throughput every nine months, had proclaimed unabashedly that in 15 years every molecule on this planet would be IP-addressable. They had, to the year, predicted the Internet of Things -- a time when any real-world object can be discovered and queried.

The fact that they nailed the forecast is interesting but not the main issue here. Humans quite probably have been making predictions since the invention of language. We make so many of them that we are bound to get some of them right -- and do so far more often than those proverbial millions of monkeys banging on millions of typewriters (shouldn't we have upgraded them to iPads by now?) will output Hamlet.

I have no doubt that in a drawer somewhere you could find a white paper or a science fiction story predicting precisely what will happen over the next 50 to 100 years. No, the important and actionable point here is that, when it comes to the Internet of Things, the days of prediction are behind us. The days of preparation and exploitation are upon us.

A few weeks ago, the IT Leadership Academy took the pulse of a few dozen CIOs regarding the state of the Internet of Things. Unsurprisingly, every one of them said they were pretty sure that somewhere in their enterprise someone was "linking things," or at least "thinking about linking things." But less than 2% of them had a strategy in place to fully exploit the emerging connectability associated with the Internet of Things.

My own prediction? Connectedness will become an important metric in the next three to five years. Individuals, products, services and institutions will be evaluated on how connected they are and on the value that accrues from those connections.

As a futurist, I am obligated to attempt to identify inflection points -- things that fundamentally disrupt the status quo, change the competitive dynamic, call into question existing practices and require a general cognitive reboot. So here it is: This is one of those.

But that was easy. Here's a less obvious prophecy: Refreshingly, this highly significant and high-impact change in the technology industry will first come to fruition not in the much-talked-about precincts of consumerization but in the frequently overlooked and mistakenly left-for-dead manufacturing sector. One scenario posits a disruption of the entire industrial economy. It is very plausible that in the future, every high-value piece of equipment will be manufactured with embedded sensors, so that the critical piece-parts will be able to call for prophylactic maintenance when they sense that they are about to fail.

What does the Internet of Things mean for IT? What really happens when things start to talk? What do you need to do to prepare? One CIO I interviewed lamented, "I can't get finance to talk to marketing or to product development, and now you want me to orchestrate a billion machines gabbing to one another?"

Yes, that's the idea. This will be interesting.

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@deanitla).

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