Kirsten Doyle 30 January 2019

The Internet of Things (IoT) is having a profound effect on all industries and many businesses in South Africa. The reality is that consumers are looking for cheaper products, faster, and as a result, the landscape has become extremely competitive. The change agent is the age of digitalisation that we’re moving into, and a key foundation to all of that is IoT.

So says Nico Steyn, CEO of IoT.nxt, adding that IoT is bringing new insights into business and is disrupting the different sectors. As a result, most businesses are now looking towards digitisation, specifically IoT, to start driving productivity and efficiency.

Roger Hislop, executive head of IoT at Internet Solutions, says: “If you think of IoT as a natural evolution of machine-to-machine or telematics, then think of it in the same light as having impacted South African businesses for 40 years, and enormously so. If you only consider IoT in the sense of the recent technology developments of low-cost devices connected to the hyperscale cloud via lowcost wireless sensor networks, then the impact is not a lot, yet. Despite the enormous hype around this technology, most South African companies are still in a wait-and-see state or doing cautious proofs-of-concept.”

“Locally, IoT is in the early hype cycle where businesses know they have to consider it and are busy shaping their strategies,” adds Craig Freer, executive head: Cloud at Vox.

In terms of the IoT ecosystem, it’s in the formative stage from a network, device and platform perspective. Freer believes IoT is on the cusp of becoming mainstream, and is currently where cloud was a few years ago. “Businesses have their own definition of it, they’re uncertain and confused, but they’re learning as the technology is evolving and starting to make sense of how it can be used to solve real-world business challenges.”

Better insights

While IoT may still be an emerging technology in South Africa, major telecommunications and IT players, as well as a host of new tech providers, are investing in new IoT networks and solutions, comments Colin Thornton, MD of Dial a Nerd and Turrito Networks. “According to Africa Analysis, there were more than seven million devices connected to IoT networks in South Africa in 2017, and the firm estimates that this number will double by 2022.”

From cars, to TVs and phones, to unmanned IP-enabled devices such as sensors, monitors and control devices, these ‘things’ are providing more information and better insights that can lead to operational efficiencies and remote controllability of processes and operations, adds Eyad Shihabi, vice president, Africa and Middle East at BT. “IoT enables businesses to use big data in smarter ways, to define new digital possibilities and move towards a new cognitive and connected world.”

Even so, there are shortcomings with IoT as with many new technologies. Take, for example, the fact that very few of these connected devices are interoperable. The primary problem is that there are too many players in the market. Technology companies are developing solutions independently of each other, using different platforms and frameworks and, as a result, many different devices can’t integrate with one another. Overcoming the interoperability challenges of IoT is an important step in reaching its wide-scale adoption and commercialisation potential.

Shihabi says that IoT adoption is a global issue, but more so in Africa than compared to front-runner environments. “Digital transformation is creeping up on the business agenda locally, with many decision-makers realising the need to transform. However, considering the dearth of local IT skills, many companies may not possess the right skills needed to leverage digital technologies effectively.

Another issue, Shihabi says, is technical perspective. “By virtue of IoT being new and made up of so many other new technologies and concepts, many companies don’t know what to expect with the lack of successful projects to ‘look up to’ or use as a benchmark.”

Creating balance

Steyn believes that one of the main issues facing IoT is the disparate nature of devices and protocols. “One of the biggest challenges, obviously, is that each industry is different, so the nature of the device, the way that it sends and formulates data is fundamentally different.”

There’s a lack of standardisation across multiple sectors and that remains a major challenge, adds Steyn. “The other challenge is obviously the fact that industries and companies have made sizeable investments in legacy technologies, equipment and enterprise systems.

“From that perspective, it’s being able to create a balance between moving into the new age, but also preserving the investments that have been made and optimising those,” he says.

Most people view security as a major challenge to IoT, but they’re wrong, says Hislop. “Security in IoT isn’t exceptionally complex or difficult. It’s a key element, but there are a number of security methods that can be applied to make IoT safe from the ground up.”

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