“The future is absolutely predictable and completely unbelievable”. This is a quote from Kevin Ashton in 2015 who is widely regarded to have been one of the pioneers of the internet of things (IoT). He is also the person who coined the term.

In the same interview, he goes on to say that 15 years from now, very few new cars will have steering wheels, lots of computers won’t have batteries and that this generation’s children and grandchildren will have three-figure life expectancies. The IoT he believes, is a fundamental reason why all this will happen.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Kevin Ashton thinks highly of the technology that he helped create, but it is hard not to be seduced by some of his predictions. The IoT is certainly a rapidly growing industry. There is currently around 6.4 billion internet-connected devices in the world, a figure that is expected to rise to 20 billion by 2020. Annual revenues for IoT vendors selling software and hardware are also expected to exceed $470 billion in the year 2020. With such high growth, it is sensible to prepare for the future and think about how the IoT might change business as we know it.

What is it?

The core idea behind the internet of things is that all kinds of objects can be given sensors and connected to the internet. The commonly cited examples of this are of kitchen appliances like washing machines that will email you once your load is finished, but in truth, this is one of the more simple applications.

The real power of the internet of things comes from taking information from devices and adding them to an interconnected computer network. Ashton uses the analogy of a human nervous system to explain how this works. If we think of our brains as the computer network, then IoT devices are our senses; touch, taste, see, hear etc.  Computers are great at computing, but just like our brains, it is the sense data that makes complex processes possible.  For example, we wouldn’t be able to drive a car without the visual data from the world around us. The IoT gives computers this kind of data.

What does this mean?

In practice, this technology has a huge range of potential applications and like a lot of emerging technologies, there is a rush to be the first to find ground-breaking innovations. There are already a few applications that have industry-changing potential, like ‘Amazon Go’ checkout-free grocery stores. These stores use IoT technology to track shopper’s movements instore, record them when they put items in their basket and then automatically charge their account when they walk out. There is no need for a checkout and shoplifting is almost impossible.

Amazon has successfully registered trademarks for slogans relating to Amazon Go with the UK patent office, suggesting that this service may already be on its way.

What about for field services?

Field service companies are in a prime position to take advantage of the internet of things. Beyond all the potential applications in speeding up supply chains (of which there are many), it will soon be possible for devices on customer sites to automatically note, in detail, the nature of faults needing repairs, even before they have even occurred. This will change the dynamics of customer service on site and maybe even the way that SLAs are written. If devices can be fixed in advanced, quick response SLAs may no longer be necessary.

Field service companies also already have the infrastructure in place to service this potentially booming industry.  For a lot of the more exciting applications of the internet of things, sensors are going to need to be installed on legacy equipment which will require skilled onsite engineers. The smart meter rollout is one example where this is already happening; smart meters are internet connected devices that are placed on existing electric and gas equipment. This project alone has an estimated total value of £11 billion.

Will it change the world?

The short answer is yes. It’s easy to dismiss some predictions as unsubstantiated (and some of them certainly are), but considering the potential benefits, it makes sense for businesses to want to see this technology rolled out as quickly as possible. Take the Amazon Go example above. Shoplifting cost British retailers £613 million in 2016, so a system that can greatly reduce this will be welcomed. This also does not consider the cost savings in staff and potentially increased volumes of customers an IoT connect shop might bring. You might not agree with Ashton that the future is “absolutely predictable”, but one thing we can be certain of is the internet of things will play a part in it.