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Just the beginning

Mariana Kruger, MTN Business

Talk of the concept and applications of the Internet of Things has been around for a number of years, but what is the reality on the ground in South Africa?

Humanity finds itself divided over the simplest of things: religion, land, politics, teabags or loose leaves, spaces or tabs. There’s one thing that we’re good at doing collectively, however: generating data. So much data, in fact, that we’re getting rather blasé about it. A few years ago, every awe-inspiring presentation cited statistics about just how much content we create and the growth of data – today, even the most improbably large numbers barely raise an eyebrow.

It is, according to wikipedia, coming up for two decades since the term Internet of Things (IoT) was ushered into being by tech entrepreneur and MIT alumni Kevin Ashton. It’s also 12 years since Adam greenfield published his seminal Everyware documenting the rise of connected devices.

Yet according to Gartner’s latest technology hype cycle for Africa, IoT in our lands has only just crossed the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and is still sliding its way into the ‘trough of disillusionment’.

And therein lies the conundrum of IoT. It feels as though it’s been around forever, yet we still don’t really understand it. To try to get to grips with the subject and figure out what the channel should be doing about it, The Margin convened a roundtable of some senior figures in the local industry. It  led to some of the most vigorous debates The Margin’s boardroom has seen yet.

What does it actually mean?

One of the challenges around understanding IoT for the layperson is that the term itself is so broadly defined. It’s commonly used in the tech and trade press to describe everything from fitness bands to industrial control systems – has it become so ubiquitous that it has essentially lost its meaning?

There was fair representation around the table for both points of view. In general, however, the feeling was that while it’s a useful term for the industry, it has little value for customers.

“It’s important that you give it a name,” says Mariana Kruger, general manager for ICT solutions at MTN Business. “Because then we come up with solutions that are based in it. But it’s what we do with it that’s most important.”

Anton Herbst, head of group strategy at Tarsus Technology, agrees. “If we go out with an IoT discussion, we’ll lose half our audience, they won’t know what we’re talking about. If I can’t bring them a technology that will solve their problems, they won’t care whether we call it IoT or whatever.”
 
Internet Solutions’ senior engineer: R&D Roger Hislop compares the discussion around IoT to the cloud 10 years ago, and says that targeting communication was key to understanding.

Patrick Shields, Software AG Patrick Shields, Software AG


“Cloud was the term everyone hated for a while,” Hislop says. “It was over-used and everything was cloud-washed. We know what we’re talking about, but when we talk to specific customers, we must talk about wireless sensors, batterypowered actuators and so on – we must keep the term for people who understand it.”

“I carry the name, literally, on my business card,” adds IoT.nxt Chief Sales fficer Andre Straus. “But in terms of the wider industry, it’s not being called IoT, it’s called digital transformation. The adoption rate is 100 times what it was a year ago, but the projects aren’t called IoT projects.”

Despite the rapid adoption of IoT that Straus has witnessed, however, his overall analysis chimes with the gartner perspective.

“Nothing is happening in the market at home yet,” he says, citing IoT.nxt’s experiences abroad. “And when it does happen, it’ll be the telcos that drive it. What will it look like in two years? The telcos will own a lot of it via the networks, then there’s the cloud where the giants play. Smart edge is one of the biggest opportunities, though, it’s not going to be sensors that plug straight into the cloud, there will be a core component of edge processing tech that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world at the moment.”

This complexity is perhaps why the gartner analysis might be strange at first.

“The hype cycle for IoT is not a traditional one,” says apps and infrastructure solution specialist at Microsoft, Alain Du Toit. “from an industry point of view, there are so many different people who have to come together to make IoT work.”

This doesn’t help with confusion in the market, Du Toit adds. “I’ve had customers ask me for ‘10 IoTs, please’.”

Alan Du Toit, Microsoft Alan Du Toit, Microsoft

Despite appearance, “the movement through the hype cycle has be a lot faster than with other things,” says Patrick Shields, CTO for Software AG in Africa. “And we’re still on the upswing here in South Africa.We’re finding critical mass through the outcomes where things are coming together. Hype cycles look at products, but it’s not clear if IoT is a product, a technology or a trend. IoT is a collection of capabilities, outcomes and use cases, and they will be different for Africa than for Europe, America or Asia-pacific. IoT is one of those capabilities that causes a lot of other things to have meaning.”
 

Is it a good story to sell?

 Following on from the language of IoT comes the difficulty in market perceptions. Is there a good story to tell around it that customers can hang on to?

“A lot of the pilot projects haven’t yielded the return expected,” admits MTNs Kruger. “But that’s because we’re still stuck in the old model of taking a product out there and selling and then being

 surprised when it doesn’t work. We need to try lots of different things. There are success stories out there.”

 

Andre Straus, IoT.nxt Andre Straus, IoT.nxt

 Kruger cites MTN’s anti-poaching programme in welgevonden game reserve, in which rhinos have been fitted with smart collars that can detect nearby poachers with 86% accuracy.

“Today in South Africa as a whole, you have a 3% chance of being detected and caught. This can make a phenomenal difference, but the underlying tech is the same as at my office or my house.”
 
 Juan Paul Gough, head of solutions sales at Mustek, thinks the challenge is relating that kind of story to the technology. “People see that rhino poaching has gone down because of a special collar,” he says, “not because of IoT.”

“There are lots of good stories in the media,” says Sqwidnet’s acting CEO Pathizwe Malinga. “But, it’s the details of the plumbing that’s hidden. We don’t talk about how insurance companies are improving driving or reporting potholes, just that they are.”

Phathizwe Malinga, SquidNet Phathizwe Malinga, SquidNet


The challenge for the channel, Malinga continues, is that it needs to communicate the value of technology services in a new way.

“IT just died,” he says. “What customers need is not more information, which is what IoT is selling them, they need the ability to make decisions and draw wisdom from data. We need machines to provide insights from data so that humans can make decisions. It’s like my GPS when I drive home; it will tell me which routes are congested, but I’ll make the final decision about which way to drive. The channel is still selling information as just information. We need them to start getting more involved with the cloud, and understanding what their customers need from it.”

Val Moodley, BT Africa Val Moodley, BT Africa

Clearing hurdles

Two essential obstacles were identified. Firstly, there’s a lack of device availability – certainly at affordable prices – in the channel. Secondly, IoT solutions may need a new approach to sales in which traditional ROI is secondary, and that’s a tough thing to learn.

For the distributors at the table, IoT is a chicken-and-egg situation. Without their supply chain, solutions will remain more expensive than they should be, but with demand for IoT still low, is it fair to ask them to shoulder the risk?

Roger Hislop, Internet Solutions Roger Hislop, Internet Solutions


“You have to package it together,” says Mustek’s Gough. “You have to build a solution that tackles issue x in health, or issue y in manufacturing and give us an opportunity to do the supply chain management.”

The demand is out there, adds Weston’s pre-sales manager for Sub Saharan Africa, Lionel Dartnall. “We have this discussion with partners every day. All companies want something to be automated, for example, they just don’t know who to start speaking to. If there’s a business case someone puts together and I can start bringing devices in, I’d love to have those conversations.”

Anton Herbst, Tarsus Technology Anton Herbst, Tarsus Technology


That may change, says Val moodley, head of strategic partnerships at BT Africa. “We’re learning to write better use cases, to understand the pain points we’re trying to solve.”
 

Typically, adds microsoft’s Du Toit, IoT solutions fail because they’re sold on the basis of traditional ROI, when what they actually provide is efficiencies that aren’t measured in the same way. “

Jeremy Potgieter, Eseye Jeremy Potgieter, Eseye


“Companies see the rands and cents, not the long-term benefit,” Du Toit says. “A lot of them are not mature enough in their decision-making process. We need to focus on how we can help people. That changes the conversation entirely.”

In that sense, says Internet Solutions’ Hislop, IoT is an incredible opportunity for the channel.

“Cloud stuffed up a lot of the channel, because things they used to integrate are now available on demand,” Hislop says. “For the first time in a long time, IoT gives them the opportunity to do something different. Devices are easy, but idiosyncratic. I’ve used the hardware extensively and every device and network is different. Every payload encoding, every way the network reports availability. Device manufacturers aren’t keen to settle on common schemas, and this is all an opportunity for resellers.

 “We need to make sure IoT technologies are applicable. Every hospital has aircon to automate, every farm has soil to check with sensors or trucks to track. You don’t need to be a retail specialist to be playing in IoT, as long as you’re a specialist in a horizontal or vertical.”

Lionel Dartnall, Westcon Lionel Dartnall, Westcon

 
“From a channel perspective,” says IoT.nxt’s Straus, “We believe that one of the disruptors will be when you get vertical and horizontal specialists coming together. It’s been tough until now, because everything is in deep niches, and the channel has been used to doing product sales.”

Juan Paul Gough, Mustek Juan Paul Gough, Mustek

 
“Are we really an ecosystem?” asks Jeremy Potgieter, SADC regional head for Eseye. “We’re all competitive, but it does require us to sit down and talk about availability of devices and standardisations, to talk about the integrated APIs.”

 “In our industry, we’ve got used to doing everything ourselves,” says BT’s Moodley. “We’re going to have to partner with people, lots of people, and learn to share margins and profit.”

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