In some cases, the services sift through huge amounts of data, which Hadoop and other big data technologies in combination with cloud services now makes possible. But an Internet of things doesn't have to involved big data -- there are small-data uses too, such as the Web of sensors on highways to detect chemical and nuclear weapons that are always monitoring but transmit only when an anomaly is detected. Combine that sensor network with traffic management systems, electronic highway signage and perhaps emergency broadcast notices, first-responder deployments, and so on, and you get a public-safety Internet of things.
Its versatility is what opens up so many possibilities for the Internet of things. For example, running an app like Foursquare or Google Now that monitors user locations takes an existing set of devices (smartphones), their sensors (location data), and their network connectivity to aggregate information to a data center somewhere in the cloud that uses that information for, in this case, ad delivery and market research. It's an example of how the Internet of things can simply be an application taking advantage of today's connected environment.
But an Internet of things can be more purpose-built, such as the devices that plug into your car's computer to transmit engine, speed, and other readings to your insurer (a bad idea!) or your smartphone (a better idea). At its most basic, this is just a sensor network in your car tying into a central transmitter. But the Internet of things twist is that some of that data would go to the government and private agencies that monitor traffic, feeding in real-time travel data to augment what they collect via in-road sensors and highway cameras.
Two (or more) is better than one
An Internet of things can enable hybrid uses. For the car example, multiple services might get pieces of that automobile and travel data for everything from traffic management to insurance rate-setting, from mechanics' diagnostics to road-repair prioritization.
As another hybrid example, think of all those health sensors available, like the Fitbit and Nike+ for personal health management, or like the Worthings blood pressure monitor or Agamatrix glucose monitor for medical monitoring. The personal ones expand the capabilities of the connected mobile world with a new sensor that sends data to an app in the cloud. But the medical ones may expand that same connected mobile world but send it to a medical provider's electronic health records (EHR) system. It's even possible that the two types of health sensors could cross-deliver, with your Fitbit data also going to the EHR and your physician-prescribed medical sensor also going to your personal health vault -- with each subset serving multiple purposes.
That notion of multiple purposes is probably the best reason for using the term "Internet of things," as the Internet is more than a resilient network but a conduit for any combination and collection of digital activities. The Internet started as a way for the government to communicate after nuclear war but has evolved to be much more than a network.
In many ways, the Internet has become a digital world that has gateways into our physical world. The Internet of things takes that concept to the next level, allowing multiple worlds -- some connected to others, some not -- that mash up physical and digital in all sorts of ways.
This article, "What the 'Internet of things' really means," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.