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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

IoT and PTC’s Brave New World

June 4th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

About a month ago I spent a few days in Boston at PTC’s LiveWorx 2015 event. It was an eye opener for me and a brief look into the future of PTC with its growing emphasis and dependence on the Internet of Things (IoT).

Recaps of the event, entitled LiveWorx 2015: PTC Drives Home Its IoT Future – Part 1 and  PTC ThingWorx Converges On IoT were published shortly after the event last month.

Beyond the technologies and business strategies presented, what struck me was the relatively young crowd attending with relatively young PTC PR people pushing the IoT platform. Sold out with over 2,300 attendees (up from ~350 in 2014), the draw was similar or maybe more than this year’s PTC Live Global user event. Although Creo and Windchill were certainly present at LiveWorx, they took a back seat to IoT offerings, such as ThingWorx, Axeda, and others.

So what does IoT really mean? I don’t know either because it’s evolving so rapidly and all participating vendors define it so that it accommodates what they offer best. In other words, until standards are established, the definition continues to evolve. I will admit, however, that PTC currently has a leg up on virtually all of the competition for IoT in its traditional design, engineering, and manufacturing space.

A standard definition is in the works, however, and IoT generally refers to uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure. The term Internet of Things was proposed by Kevin Ashton in 1999, although the concept has been discussed since 1991, so it’s not exactly brand new.

According to PTC, the Internet of Things has the potential to create trillions of dollars of new economic value in the coming decade. To capture this value, manufacturers will rely on new applications that enable the creation of smart, connected products, thus PTC’s interest and commitment, as shown in the brief video below.

PTC’s Vision for Smart, Connected Products

Honestly, though, do you want to be constantly monitored, whether in your home, car, or any other place? I don’t either. Keep in mind, though, you’re already being constantly monitored if you own a cell phone or drive a car with a communications system, such as OnStar. For all the good things IoT might provide, I also see it potentially as intrusive as, for example, Progressive’s car insurance driving monitors that get you lower insurance rate if you install one in your car.

That said, let’s start with mobile/cell phones that follow us wherever we go.

Mobile phone tracking refers to establishing the position of a mobile phone, whether stationary or moving. Localization can occur either via multi-lateration of radio signals between (several) radio towers of the network and the phone, or simply via GPS. To locate the phone using multilateration of radio signals, it must emit at least the roaming signal to contact the next nearby antenna tower, but the process does not require an active call.

The Global System for Mobile Communications is based on the phone’s signal strength to nearby antenna masts.Mobile positioning, which includes location-based services that disclose the actual coordinates of a mobile phone bearer, is a technology used by telecommunication companies to approximate the location of a mobile phone, and thereby also its user (bearer). The more properly applied term locating refers to the purpose rather than a positioning process. Such service is offered as an option of the class of location-based services (LBS)

Locating or positioning touches upon delicate privacy issues (and rightly so), since it enables someone to check where a person is without the person’s consent. Strict ethics and security measures are strongly recommended for services that employ positioning, and the user must give an informed, explicit consent to a service provider before the service provider can compute positioning data from the user’s mobile phone.

A phone’s location can be uploaded to a common website where one’s friends and family can view one’s last reported position. Newer phones may have built-in GPS receivers which could be used in a similar fashion, but with much higher accuracy. This is controversial, because data on a common website means people who are not “friends and family” may be able to view the information — not exactly a comforting thought.

As for vehicles, systems like OnStar,  a subsidiary of General Motors, provides subscription-based communications, in-vehicle security, hands free calling, turn-by-turn navigation, and remote diagnostics systems. Sounds OK, right? It is until you look a little closer at it and its implications. For example, it is theoretically possible for OnStar to be remotely activated by malicious third parties or under government order. This would enable third parties to track the location of the car, along with the ability to listen to the contents of any conversations carried on by the occupants within the car without their consent.

However, the FBI has been denied the ability to use this as it disables OnStar’s safety features as determined by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In its document of privacy practices, OnStar states that it is not possible for them to listen to or monitor conversations in a car without the knowledge of the occupant. The hardware is designed so that when an OnStar adviser calls into a car, a light flashes, a ring tone is heard, and the radio will mute. In 2011, OnStar did announce that it would start retaining all the information collected by the GPS and internal system, so that it could be sold to third parties (possibly insurance companies). Although this data is supposed to be “anonymized”, it remains unclear exactly what this means as it is extremely difficult to anonymize GPS data. A few weeks later, after outcry from subscribers and privacy advocate groups, OnStar reversed the decision to continue collecting information from unsubscribed units. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Another huge source of tracking is, of course, through Google and the internet, but that’s a topic beyond what we’re discussing here, but significant (and a little scary) nonetheless.

Ironically, on May 4, 2015, The Wall Street Journal listed LiveWorx 2015 as one of the major events taking place during that week, but also ran a story that day entitled, “Dumb ‘Smart’ Gadgets: The Bubble Set to Burst,” by Christopher Mims. Among other things, he postulates is “One thing smart objects are definitely good for is surveillance of their users.” I agree, and think a growing number of us will become more concerned being under constant surveillance. That said, though, is there much we can really do about it? To a degree, yes; but to a larger degree, probably not, unless you’re willing to pay for everything with cash, call people from pay phones that accept coins, and get around by walking and biking. I doubt few of us will end up doing that, but it does make you think, doesn’t it?

I don’t want to come off as a Luddite with regard to IoT, I’m just being cautiously skeptical.

So, what does all this mean for the future of PTC?

For one, in the past couple of years the company has spent a good deal of money (over $500 million) on IoT by acquiring companies and integrating their IoT capabilities into the PTC ecosystem. A lot has been accomplished, but a lot more still needs to be done. IoT is a diversification and extension of PTC’s CAD, CAM, and PLM business that currently none of its competitors engage in, putting PTC in a unique and enviable position.

PTC realizes that “things” have evolved from just 3D objects to being smart and connected. These “things” are what PTC emphasizes in its IoT approach, as the new reality is a hybrid of the physical and digital — distinct, but inseparable. The “thing” and the customer’s roles are interchangeable, where one, the other, or both can act as the sensor. IoT also provides great potential for analytics and predictive behavior of products. This new reality comes down to technology platforms and enterprise applications that can provide business transformation, opportunities, and value.

Is PTC unique in this push for Iot? Hardly. Just about any industry you can name is showing increasing interest — hardware and software vendors, machine and medical device manufacturers — the list goes on and on, and we’re just in the initial phases of IoT platforms, but PTC is ahead of the curve on many fronts. Also, not to be left out, the CEO of networking giant, Cisco, Chuck Robbins, recently said one of  his major goals as CEO is to make Cisco the No. 1 information-technology company in the world, partly by helping to connect all kinds of business and consumer devices. Needless to say, PTC is not alone on the IoT frontier.

Admittedly, at this time, PTC seems to betting the farm on the success of its IoT initiative. Win, lose, or draw, this IoT initiative will be PTC’s CEO, Jim Heppelmann’s legacy. It’s much too early to tell what the ultimate outcome will be for IoT, from either PTC’s perspective or the larger digital universe, but PTC seems to be getting the parts aligned for success in this brave new world. At present and for the foreseeable future it’s very well positioned.

I have a couple closing thoughts. First, the number of applications available for my iPhone is over one million, yet the number of useful applications is probably in the thousands. This same ratio will probably hold true for IoT, as well. Lastly, will “smart” things make people dumb? I hope not, but then again, how many phone numbers have you memorized lately that you can remember?

Editor’s Note: We’ve hardly touched on the security aspect of IoT, but that will be the topic of a soon-to-follow blog post on MCADCafe.

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