Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Big Picture of today's M2M landscape

Mastering the Musts

Let’s briefly (promise!) go back to the basics. Please!

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the hottest buzzwords in todays technology industry. The term IoT sells very well these days, mainly because of all the predictions for IoT to become a multi-trillion dollar industry. These predictions are made by many acclaimed organizations, for example, IDC, Forbes, Oracle, Cisco, just to name a few.  Most claim that to happen until 2020 and go far beyond that.

It’s just 5 years from now!

Machine-to-Machine (M2M) is another one of the hottest buzzwords existing in the tech arena today. It is essentially a more technical way of saying IoT. Let’s put it this way that “M2M is a way how IoT is implemented or achieved”. It’s about machines talking (actually, communicating) to machines, regardless of whatever they are. Think in terms of your daily life objects. For example, your watch talking to your smartphone, your car talking to your garage, your coffee machine talking to your door lock as it unlocks, and so on. The possibilities are unlimited. If such things talk to other things, isn’t that the Network of Things? When this network operates over the Internet, it becomes the Internet of Things!

We all know that already, so, whats the point here? The point is that we need to understand the M2M drives IoT- and that’s how they differ! They are not same, let’s be clear on this. I do not want to dive into the discussion of what IoT and M2M are and what they are not beyond this point. There is no one standard definition, opinion or perspective and these terms are very relative. However, what I do want to discuss here is how the M2M landscape could evolve in the next coming years and what essentially would be required from the technology standpoint from various industry segments. This may tell us how IoT use cases may look like in the years to come. But, before we can dive into this discussion, we really need to understand what is M2M landscape today from a more strategic perspective.

Keep reading.

M2M as we know it, TODAY!

Generally speaking, M2M today is not really things talking to things. It’s more like things talking to a powerful centralized platform. Lets call this powerful centralized platform as backend. What this means is that a large majority (but not all) of the M2M devices used today only talk to a designated backend. This is because, these devices are configured to (1) collect raw (sensor) data, (2) perform limited set of processing on or around the data internally and then (3) dispatch this data to some backend. This backend usually resides in a (public or private) cloud (oh snap! :-/ another buzzword!). Once the data arrives at the backend, then the backend can perform all sorts of complex, smart, creative, data brokering & analytics (Big Data Computing :-/) functions - the so called “business functions” to deliver value. This backend is where - usually - the real business logic, key value proposition & differentiation from the competition lives, for anyone who claims to provide end-to-end (E2E) M2M solutions today. This means that selling the E2E M2M solutions is most of the times telling a customer that “look how much value our service (actually, backend business functions) can bring to your business”. Today, the M2M devices that send the data to the backend usually do not create key differentiation for a typical E2E M2M solution provider (“solution provider” from now on). Likewise, the applications that get the data from the backend to provide an easy-to-understand-the-service view through apps & web, are really not too much of a differentiator. This is because, the solutions providers prefer to remain device & User Experience (UX) agnostic. This brings complexity to their backends, but they get a lot of flexibility and freedom in return. As a result, most of the real power of M2M solutions sits in the backend - the platform.

Today, you can feel that the M2M (or generally speaking, the IoT) industry is in a state of war on platforms!

Who empowers M2M today

The fact that M2M today is mainly the war on platforms does not mean that they are the only driving force behind enabling the M2M ecosystem. Platforms exist because they are supported by a lot of other players in the industry. Platforms are not all-inclusive standalone systems. They are about bringing just the right set of expertise & enablers in one place and make them available for others. So, what are these expertise & enablers that are making platforms, and ultimately M2M, so powerful?

The M2M today is empowered by several other players providing variable set of expertise and enablers across the industry. To help us look at the big picture of the M2M industry landscape, lets have a look at the industry segmentation below.

As you see, from the technology standpoint the entire M2M industry is driven by devices, communication, cloud, platform and clients. Here is how its happening today:

The hardware vendors from all areas of technology including, but not limited to, sensors manufacturers, chips makers, modules manufacturers, device manufacturers & assembly line providers etc. really form the foundation of the entire M2M industry today. It’s obvious that without devices, no data can be collected resulting in nothing talking to nothing. Many, but not all of these folks also deliver their own device management solutions that can be integrated into third party platforms. However, advancements in the hardware segment happens relativity slower compared to the software side of things.

Think the likes of Telit.

These are Telcos. They are by far one of the most significant players in the M2M landscape. They influence devices, provide all aspects of communication infrastructure (with the help of infrastructure vendors), operate data centers and cloud environments, and to some extend, develop their own platforms. However, talking of platforms, they still aren’t leading the market in that space, so they tend to either acquire, or (exclusively) partner with the platform providers. These folks also influence the clients and drive to a limited extend the UX. Telcos are the only players in the M2M race that touches every part of the value chain. They stand a real chance to define the future of IoT, generally speaking, if they begin to rethink their business today.

Think the likes of Vodafone.

These folks are independent data center operators and infrastructure providers. They typically are IT companies penetrating into the data center business. They indeed are a real threat to Telcos, when it comes to cloud infrastructure, however, they are far from operating their own communication infrastructure. Usually, they are the first choice of platform providers for their platform deployment. Many of the cloud vendors also provide some sort of platform capabilities, such as, providing APIs to perform data analytics, management & messaging to name a few. However, they normally just enable others to deliver value through their M2M solution platforms, rather than developing one themselves.

Think the likes of Amazon Web Services.

This is where the real value of M2M solutions live today. These folks implement and deliver differentiated business functions and new value propositions which are device vendor & communication provider agnostic. These value propositions sell! This is the place where M2M solutions start to become more visible and the data collected from the devices start to transform itself into valuable information. The capabilities like, data analytics, batch, stream & real-time computing, remote monitoring & control, tracking, and so many others are implemented here. Many platform providers even influence the UX on the clients. They either deliver their own clients, or enable others to use their platform to self-develop the clients. Today, platform is the place where innovation is happening at much faster pace than any other of these industry segments. This is where the war for M2M leadership is more prominent - TODAY!

Some platform players do influence the device segment through their certification or partner programs.

Think the likes of Axeda.

Clients are the visual and UX drivers in the entire M2M solution development chain. This is where software developers sit. It includes every aspect of defining M2M solution experience from the user perspective, such as, UX, visual design, icons, apps, web dashboard etc. These folks make use of the data exposed by the platforms to deliver the clients. These clients heavily rely upon the communication business, however, usually do not influence it (unless they are Whatsapp ;-)!).

Think the likes of iOS, Android & web developers.

Summing up

That’s the M2M of today - as we know it!

Now that we have established the context of where we are today and how the industry is fragmented, let me stop the discussion here. Subsequently, in the next episode I will continue the discussion based on what we have read today and I hope with your help, we may be able to make this discussion as productive and widespread as possible for the greater good of the tech industry.

Stay tuned, keep following, keep sharing further & thank you for reading!
Another thing before I forget, of course,  do not be shy in expressing your thoughts and opinions in the comments.

Stay safe!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Rethinking the Telco Business

There is a major difference between the business mentality of Telco & IT industries today. This difference is normally not spoken out loud. However, who ever understands the business priorities of the two industries should be able to feel this difference. For everyone’s sake, let me give you a flavor of what this difference in mentality of Telco & IT industries sound like from a very high level:
Telco industry believes
We provide the fundamental communication infrastructure that is driving today’s Internet & mobile services. Every connected product, either hardware or software & services, require our connectivity infrastructure to function & generate revenue. If we do not deliver connectivity, then no one could deliver connected products. Therefore, we are THE driving force behind the growth of digital economies & keeping the IT industry alive. Period.
IT industry believes
We are the ones who develop software & services for every industry & directly influence our customers’ business. Our customers do not care how our products work, as far as they deliver what they expect from them. We are the real innovators because we keep on introducing new software & services very rapidly independent of the underlying communication infrastructure. We see connectivity as a commodity and expect it to be everywhere every time, whenever we need. If we don’t deliver our software & services, then no one would require connectivity. Therefore, we are THE driving force behind the growth of digital economies & keeping the Telco industry alive. Period.
Okay! I do understand that this is a controversial discussion to have and many of you may disagree in one way or the other with what is expressed above. However, for a few moments lets be very honest on the priorities of Telcos & IT industry:
  • The Telcos want to sell as much connectivity as possible regardless of who is the service provider (think Vodafone! works behind services of Amazon Kindle, BMW, Daimler, Audi, VW, TomTom, etc.).
  • The IT companies want to sell as much software & services as possible regardless of who is the connectivity provider (think Whatsapp! works with any type of internet connectivity (2G, 3G, 4G, DSL, VDSL, WiFi, etc.), regardless of the provider).
This is a fact & major difference in how these two industries operate, today!
Let’s stick to the Telcos’ perspective in this discussion.

Telco transformation into IT

In spite of the staggering rate of growth of IT services today, the Telcos’ main business driver remains providing connectivity by selling more and more SIM cards. This does not mean that Telcos do not realize that their connectivity is becoming a commodity. They really do! However, the Telco industry today is very very brand conscious. Every Telco provider believes they are a brand that everyone loves. Also, there is an oblivious belief among Telcos that they are a consumer brand that their subscribers adore. This perspective of Telcos is not completely wrong, but it is not completely right either. Unfortunately, what most Telcos do not seem to realize is that they are not a brand that consumers love, like they love Apples, Samsungs and Googles of today. Once, I asked a senior Telco executive that “how many times have you seen people queued up in front of your stores since 4 a.m. in the morning just because they want to be the first ones to buy your product?” What I got in response was utter frustration & anger that made me the center of attention, as if I have done a crime.
I’m not saying that Telcos are not consumer-loved brands. They are, indeed! However, not to the level what many IT companies (including startups) have achieved. This is because what Telcos provide (connectivity) is hidden behind the scenes and not noticed by the consumers, until it malfunctions. All consumers see is that their Whatsapp, Google Maps, Mail, Games etc. work great and have exciting user experience. They tend to give all the good credit to the services running on top of the Telco connectivity. As soon as the connectivity fails, all the blame goes to the Telcos (Oh my God, what a crap Internet connectivity!). How many times do we hear consumers appreciating the connectivity, while they are enjoying the service experience? For exactly this reason, the Telcos need to understand that if they want to compete with brands like Apple, Samsung & Google, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter etc., then they must deliver software & services that are NOT restricted to their networks only. The Telcos need to leave their egos behind and start to work collaboratively. Think about it! What if consumers could buy a service from one Telco and use it over the network of the other Telco - seamlessly? This is a complete opposite of how Telco industry thinks today. However, it is not too far when the connectivity business of the Telcos will become a low cost commodity to afford, just like water, electricity and gas, leaving them to be used as dumb data transmission pipes. Every one will (or perhaps already!) expect connectivity to just BE THERE. That’s when the services that Telcos provide will differentiate them from the competition & help them introduce new revenue streams. The Telcos must become software hubs and develop their own services in-house, instead of merely taking third party services and reselling them as a white labeled solution. White labeling services won’t generate any IPR for Telcos, but becoming software hubs will. Telcos must invest!
Once the Telcos become software & service providers, then they will naturally get a competitive edge on existing IT industry because of having their own connectivity infrastructure. Their capability of planning, deploying, operating networks, roaming, charging & billing, when coupled with the knowledge of developing, designing, UX, deploying & operating software & services will establish them as extremely strong players in the industry who can really revolutionize the technology landscape from every perspective. It is much easier for Telcos to become IT players than for IT players to become Telcos. With 2015 beginning to unroll, I hope the decision makers in the Telco strategy sphere engage to redefine their businesses for the greater good. The race has started, but there is a long way to go.
Telcos urgently need to transform themselves into IT player - now!
Please share your opinion in the comments to help me verify mine.