Network and internet conceptPTC last month announced that it was acquiring ThingWorx, a company that develops and markets platforms to connect things to the Internet, an important step that enables makers of cars, dishwasher, industrial equipment and so on to monitor usage and better serve their customers. In support of its rationale for the acquisition, PTC pointed us to reports by McKinsey, which says that the Internet of Things will create $2.7 trillion to $6.2 trillion of economic value overall and $0.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion of economic value in the manufacturing industry by 2025 and by Gartner, which more or less agrees, saying the IoT will generate $1.9 trillion of global economic value-add by 2020, 15% of which should occur in the manufacturing sector.

I never know what to do with data like that. Much more interesting was The Economist magazine’s special publication on the Internet of Things. It summarized a survey of nearly 800 executives who think the IoT will change how they offer customer service and support. The Economist found that 75% of companies surveyed are exploring or using the IoT but, not surprisingly, most are still trying to figure out how the IoT works and what it will mean for their particular offerings. But the execs see this ramping up quickly, from a mainly internal focus right now to the point where almost every exec said their company would be using the IoT in some capacity in the next three years. There’s a certain amount of fear driving this progress: 61% of the executives think that “companies slow to integrate the IoT into their business will fall behind the competition”.

Whether you think the IoT will happen quickly or slowly, the reality is that it’s already started. If you walk into a retail establishment with a cell phone, you’re giving the store valuable information about where you spend your time (do you look more at the boots or the snow thrower?) and, if they have the infrastructure, helping them figure out how your looking translates into purchases. If you use a Fitbit to track your progress on that New Year’s resolution and then upload it to a website, you’re using the IoT. Privacy advocates are screaming, but it is increasingly how our world works.

But it’s not simple. So you connect things to the Internet; what data do you gather and what do you do with that data? That’s where PTC’s ThingWorx’s comes in. Its products are used to develop, monitor, and analyze connected devices’ data streams. One of those products is SQUEAL, which stands for Search, Query, and Analysis. According to ThingWorx, “SQUEAL brings Search to the world of connected devices and distributed data. With SQUEAL’s interactive search capabilities, users can now correlate data that delivers answers to key business questions”.

Those “key business questions” are the whole point of PLM: connect up enough of the same model dishwasher, and you can start making serious inroads into better initial design, design-for-maintenance, maintenance management, spares and all sorts of other after-sales areas. It all depends on what sensors you place, where you place them and what you do with the data you gather. Product usage meets design and influences every step along the way.

The technologies making the IoT possible are just coming to the fore and how we will exploit its benefits (and deal with its downsides) are still being figured out. The Economist found that “[m]ore IoT-specific skills are needed for the next stage of development. A lack of IoT skills and knowledge among employees and management is viewed as the biggest obstacle to using the IoT more extensively.” With this acquisition, PTC clearly wants to be steering the conversation.

PTC hasn’t disclosed how many customers (or even what types of customers) ThingWorx currently has, but if you were at PTC’s user conference a couple of years ago and saw the gigantic washer and dryer on stage, those customers would seem a perfect place to start. Moderately expensive, mass-produced, sales to urban/connected populations — a logical place to start gathering data to see how the IoT could work.

Automobiles are also a prime type of device to connect to the IoT. According to Adweek, “Audi and GM will release models that offer for the first time built-in 4G LTE broadband connections. The cars essentially turn into smartphones on wheels, offering WiFi hot spots that support eight devices at a time, as well as for navigation, video content, Internet radio and social media. Nuance is bringing the ability to dictate email and text messages to the BMW 7 Series. Toyota drivers can voice-connect to apps like Yelp for restaurant reviews, AccuWeather or”

I’m not sure that we need more distracted drivers on the roads, but cars that use sensors to determine how our driving behavior creates risk could make us all safer. Aggregate my data with all of yours, and we can design a car that encourages us to avoid unsafe behaviors. Now let’s add smarts to the roads themselves, to warn the car and driver about icy conditions and crosswinds and we start to build a network of things that improves both driving experience and ultimate safety.

Let’s be clear, though. The IoT isn’t just about consumer “things”. An oil and gas producer can use the IoT to analyze sensor data from the North Sea in the comfort of an office far, far away. Utilities can better monitor their transmission networks. The IoT could connect the SCADA system on a factory floor with demand and supply information to truly optimize production. It comes down to making the business case: how much will is cost to capture which data, and to what end?

As I wrote when PTC announced the acquisition, the IoT creeps me out a bit. I don’t want my every movement tracked and analyzed and I don’t want my fridge randomly texting me to tell me we need butter. Before we all jump onto the IoT with both feet, we need to address privacy concerns and figure out the business logic — what are you tracking and why? How do you turn that mountain of data into actionable information? How do you convince your customer that this is a good thing? PTC and ThingWorx intend to help customers answer those questions, and be an integral part of the IoT itself.