The Internet of Things Could Change How Small Businesses Operate

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The interconnection of computing-like devices poses exciting opportunities—and a few risks—for business owners

It’s the middle of winter. As a business owner, you know it’s prudent to keep the heat on—yet not too high. But wouldn’t it be nice for rooms to start warming up when you got in the car en route to an office that was warm by the time you got there? 

The Internet of Things is unlocking that potential along with a whole new range of efficiencies, industries and opportunities for small business owners. 

The background 

The Internet of Things (IoT) describes physical objects that can communicate, sense or interact with surroundings entirely independent of a person. That means objects like a smart thermostat or a postal service truck that can self-monitor vehicle maintenance, gauge environmental conditions and send info to municipalities about detected potholes. (Whether those potholes actually get fixed is another matter.)   

While use of these products is narrow now, predictions point toward future ubiquity. Cisco pins the number of IoT devices at 50 billion in 2020. By that same year, a recent Gartner study estimated, there will be almost four times as many IoT devices as smartphones, tablets and PCs

Such mainstream application is possible because the technology to create this connectivity is cheap and becoming cheaper. 

Groups like the Open Interconnect Consortium and the AllSeen Alliance are working to create standards around the data and how it’s used. Microsoft, Intel and Cisco, which are part of those groups, are looking to lay the groundwork so these billions of devices can communicate with one another. 

How it’s being used now

Nest Labs, which Google bought for $3.2 billion, makes one of the more popular IoT devices right now with its smart thermostat. 

With it, consumers and business owners alike can remotely monitor and control how hot or cold their office or home is. Nest also learns people’s behaviors and schedules so that the device, independent of you, can more efficiently and cost-effectively regulate temperature. 

The opportunities for business owners

That real-time monitoring creates a lot of potential for business owners, says Sergio Galindo, general manager, infrastructure business unit, GFI Software in Durham, North Carolina, which provides IT services to more than 200,000 small and midsize businesses. That potential goes beyond boosting efficiencies. 

A retail store could set up sensors that provide real-time information about where customers are and aren’t gathering. 

“You can see where people are grouping, maybe toward a popular sale or popular item,” Galindo says. “Is my marketing working? Is my display working? For a store owner, that’s gold.”  

Some risks involved

Like with many things tech, the Internet of Things doesn’t come without potential risks. More data being transmitted means potentially more opportunity for people to exploit the information: If your office thermostat knows when everyone’s gone, so too could someone looking to break in. 

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Galindo says. “But it’s something we need to be careful about.”

Aside from privacy, there’s also concern about the sheer volume of data. Not to mention, Galindo says, what happens when something breaks. Say your smart fridge goes out—whom do you call? A technician? The IT guy?  

Those problems, though substantial, might be a bit far off. While the balance is starting to tip, not many small and midsize businesses are using the Internet of Things in a broad manner, Galindo says. Instead, he sees companies “siloed”—they use one IoT product for one purpose, like just using the smart thermostat. 

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