During an interview today, I was asked the question “So where do these numbers come from? How do we get to 20 billion IoT devices?” Great question! How, exactly, do we get to 20 billion (or 30 billion, or a trillion) IoT devices? We’re certainly not going to get there with wearable devices and other personal gadgets. Well, we might but it would be a stretch, and the probability is near-zero. Why do I say it’s not going to happen with wearables, etc.? Well, again, let’s do some simple calculations.

There are (roughly) 7 billion people on the planet. For argument’s sake, let’s say every single person on the planet gets fitted out with 3 wearable devices. There, we made our 20 billion number. Done. We can all go home now. But not quite so fast. Only 4.5 Billion people have access to working toilets, so I’m going to guess that they might buy a toilet before they buy a FitBit or an Apple Watch. I know I would. You would too. Only 3 billion people are internet users, so that cuts down the number of possible devices quite a bit. Suffice it to say that we’re not going to get to 20 billion IoT devices anytime soon if we base it on the number of people on the planet. As I’ve said for over 10 years, that’s a limited market. 

IoT based on the number of people on the planet simply isn’t interesting. It’s a limited market. I call it the Internet of People (IoP). It’s what gets all the press, because let’s face it, it’s fun and sexy and you get to buy cool toys and play with them. But in a real sense, it is uninteresting. 

Great, so now we know how we’re not going to get there. Helpful, I guess, but not really in the way you wanted. So let’s take a simple example, and do some more simple math. Let’s say we want to put strain/crack/breakage sensors on every window of a skyscraper. Let’s make this skyscraper 600 feet tall, and put, say, 100 windows per floor. That gives us 60,000 windows. (Remember that number, because I’m coming back to it.) Now let’s make 10 of those per city. We’re up to 600,000 windows. Let’s make that for 100 cities. 600,000,000 windows to put sensors on. And that’s just ONE IoT application on (a few) buildings. I can think of about a dozen more without breaking a sweat, each one requiring about the same number of sensors. Now can you see how we get to 20 Billion devices? I sure can, and none of it has anything to do with consumers, wearable devices, or almost any of the other currently trendy “IoT” topics. 

IoT based on actual Things is virtually limitless. If you’re looking for true market potential, this is where the interesting things will happen. This is where the real money is to be made. It’s where the truly difficult problems will be solved. It’s where the really interesting work is. 

Now, let’s go back to that number I told you to remember. 60,000 windows on that building. It’s one thing to set about the task of placing sensors on all of those windows. That job alone would take you 6 months or more (look up how long it takes to wash all the windows on a skyscraper). But what if someone had to go back every year and replace 15,000 batteries on those sensors? What?! You’d basically have to have a full-time crew of battery-changers working on every one of your buildings. Great for unemployment world-wide. Not great for the economics of owning the building. Again, the tricky part is going to be in removing the battery from the equation. Make that sensor a solar-powered, stick-on sensor and your window-washers can stick one on each window during one cleaning cycle and then … never touch them again. 

This is why I moved to the start-up I’m working for now. We are going to enable a fundamental shift in what is possible with the Internet of Things. Things that weren’t possible before — because of energy constraints, battery issues, etc — will now be not only possible, but practical. That skyscraper example above? Now possible. It doesn’t even take a very imaginative person to think up another 100 examples of sensor-based projects that you can’t do today because of the problem of batteries. Most of those will be possible. 

So get those imaginations working. Start thinking up the IoT ideas that will be possible once you remove the problem of batteries from them. And then get in touch with me and let’s see how we can make it happen.