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Acer founder pushes Taiwan to explore overlooked corner of growing IoT industry

For a few years, the Internet of things was much promise but little substance. In 2014, tech market research firm Gartner declared IoT the most hyped technology of the year.

But now the hype is backed by numbers. Cisco predicts that there will be 50 billion connected devices in the world by 2020, while investment bank Morgan Stanley forecasts a bolder 75 billion.

Much of that ascent will go toward industry IoT rather than consumer use, and Taiwan’s major companies are seeking to lead the trend.

The exponential growth would be driven by stronger computing power delivered in ever smaller packages, coupled with the near ubiquity of high-speed Internet.

NOT JUST HOUSEHOLD USE

With this more definitive arrival of IoT, media attention has largely focused on consumer applications, alongside concerns about security and privacy. Implications of IoT for industry are less often discussed. But smart manufacturing systems have the potential to connect formerly isolated fields of production and business.

A World Economic Forum report from 2015 highlights the role of IoT, stressing that its industrial applications may "ultimately dwarf the consumer side in potential business and socioeconomic impact."

To advance Taiwan’s role in IoT, Stan Shih, founder of Acer and the current chairman of Stans Foundation, announced in December the launch of beingNet Alliance. The platform unites his foundation with Global Bio-Industry Technology Development Foundation, Acer Inc., Tons Lightology Inc. and 5W Computing and Communication Ltd.

They aim to speed up the connection of intelligence and IoT to create an “Internet of beings” for Taiwanese industry.

POOL OF INFORMATION

Shih, chief consultant to the alliance, argues in a mission statement that "IoT cannot function without insight." Uniting ICT resources with knowhow in more traditional industries could lead to accelerated innovation. IoB, as envisioned by Shih, is a more system of expertise than a network of hardware.

At its opening conference in December, beingNet singled out the agricultural sector as its primary focus of operations. This choice, said Shih, was motivated by Taiwan’s need for a discrete national brand. In terms of raw production, Taiwan’s agriculture ranks 45th in the world, with a total production value of US$16.32 billion in 2014, despite a relatively small population and limited arable land.

Peng Tso-Kui, the chairman of Global Bio-Industry Technology Development Foundation, formerly acted as president to Taiwan’s council for agriculture and has long voiced ambition to bring smart technology and branding to the industry.

In the past, explains Peng, agriculture rarely cooperated with other industries. Introducing ICT knowhow would open more channels of information and digitalization and, ultimately, bring higher profits.

Duncan Green, senior strategic adviser at Oxfam, the aid and development charity, told the Financial Times that “if groups of farmers can come together to access sensors and other technologies out there, they’ve got a better chance of staying competitive.”

An example of how beingNet will contribute to Taiwan’s agriculture may come from 5W Computing and Communication, which developed sensors that can be used in the real-time monitoring of fresh produce logistics. A network of sensors, or nodes, following each shipment will enhance traceability from the farm to the marketplace. Combined with Acer’s cloud platform, the system will also offer innovative services through comprehensive data analysis.

MULTIPLE INDUSTRIES

BeingNet, however, has larger ambitions. At an event in June titled "New Industry, New Ecosystem, New Life," the alliance announced a three-year plan that encompassed networks for smart architecture, smart machinery, and the medical sector.

Simon Chang, former prmier and chairman of the Institute for Biotechnology and Medicine Industry, was announced as president of beingNet’s new medical applications network. Chang began his career at Google’s office in Taiwan.

The real value of IoT, Chang argues, is in new business models. In the third world, the introduction of the mobile phone, for example, has facilitated a new form of micro financing, enabling small-scale farmers to get paid for their produce, or take out small loans, all over the phone.

As smart technology and IoT proliferate, the scope for new business models are also expected to increase.

Taiwan’s history as an engine of manufacturing, however, has accustomed businesses to thinking purely in terms of hardware. In May 2016, however, exports contracted 11.4 percent year-on-year to US$22.72 billion. According to a report by Taiwan’s Ministry of Finance, this contraction will last longer than the record set during the financial crisis.

The report attributed the decline to the failure of local exporters to take advantage of the shift from hardware to software competition.

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