The 3 ways the Internet of things will unfold

The three key segments of the real IoT are on different paths, so don't think of them as one entity

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The notion of smart systems will gain traction, with Bluetooth peripherals as the first step
Connecting M2M systems to the rest of the world will scare many IT pros, though "rest of the world" really means "other parts of the world." But it's inevitable because it's so useful. I recently profiled a simple example of a utility company managing its systems via iPads to be able to respond to problems faster. That's the simple example we'll see first.

That example is not restricted to M2M systems. It's basic field service, and it's happening in all sorts of ways. For example, some oil rig equipment has sensors that a field engineer can tap into via an iPad, then communicate to home base over satellite or other communications systems to get diagnostics and proposed fixes, as well as interactive manuals. The same is true for airplane engine and copier repairs.

This too is not a new area. What is new is using consumer-grade equipment like the iPad, standard communications technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and standard application languages like JavaScript and environments like HTML5. Again, it's old-fashioned industrial computing made easier through modern technologies, then rebranded as IoT.

You'll see more of it. As an example, Motorola Solutions recently announced a Bluetooth barcode scanner that works with Android and iOS devices. Historically, such scanning equipment is proprietary and expensive. Special training is also required to use and maintain them. By making the scanner a Bluetooth peripheral for common mobile devices changes that equation. Now, your employees can use equipment they likely know how to operate, using Web or native apps that are familiar to them to control the peripheral.

There are many examples of using mobile devices as computing hubs to sensors and specialty peripherals, especially around Bluetooth. This is going to change the specialty-gear industry in profound ways. It's already altering the consumer sphere, with everything from fitness wearables to ice-fishing aides. But cheaper, easier-to-use equipment running on common devices is merely the first step.

What comes next is what I call smart systems. Because these peripherals are connected to, in essence, mobile computers and those in turn can be connected to the Internet and all available cloud resources, they form a network of both data and operation. This is where the "Internet of things" label rightfully applies.

What do I mean by that kind of network? Think of a delivery driver, who now has a signature pad that collects your signature and lets the driver input status like "addressee not home, package not delivered." The data could then be transmitted via a radio in the truck so that the shipping info is updated on the tracking website that both the sender and recipient can monitor.

That existing technology has proven quite useful, but imagine if the signature pad were a peripheral or used a tablet's touchscreen. If the addressee is not home, the driver could take a photo of where the package was left, so the person knows where to look for it -- or of the menacing dog preventing delivery or of the person who signed for the package (because they almost never ask for ID). That's just the camera. If Bluetooth-powered door locks ever take off, they could interact with a back-end service for which the addressee has door-lock access rights temporarily, so the driver could open the door to leave the package in a safe location.

As the day progresses, the status of deliveries could be compared for nearby trucks, allowing transfer of cargo to equalize workload -- or even shift packages to a second driver who can revisit an address that day knowing the person is now available, rather than ship the package back to the distribution center and try the whole process the next day.

All the pieces exist in some form today, but their distribution is uneven -- both the hardware and the cloud-connected apps. As they become more common, we'll get smarter interactions that let us improve service in a whole range of fields, not simply package delivery. A quick example: A smart pillbox coupled with the sensors in a wearable or smartphone could allow remote monitoring of patients anywhere and provide a way for the patient to engage back (show a photo of the pill -- is it the right one?).

Such technology is already in trial sessions. But these trials focus on the center monitoring the edge: the patient, the home alarm, and so on. They're not so focused on the reverse, which is letting the edge query the center -- the delivery service, the doctor's office, the alarm company.

That'll come after the center-to-edge uses are in place. Once a connection is set, exploiting it in two directions becomes much easier. Then we'll see connections across multiple systems in a federation, in the same vein we've seen in the Internet and the cloud.

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