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

The Internet of things is hot. Practically every tech vendor is using the label for some of its products. Cisco Systems and PwC both predict that the market will be worth trillions of dollars. The Internet of things is also the tech industry's latest overhyped technology -- most of what is called IoT is not IoT, and the IoT market will never be worth trillions of dollars unless you declare that IoT includes anything that uses power, a chip, and some communications capability, which is a pointless definition.

Despite the tech industry's fierce attempts to scrub all meaning from the IoT label, something real and valuable is occurring in the Internet of things. But users and IT organizations can't take advantage of it without understanding what's going on, which is what this post explains.

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Several technologies are making IoT widely possible, mostly from the mobile space.

One is the low-power processor, typically based on the ARM designs already in use by nearly all smartphones and tablets. They're much cheaper and smaller, as well as more power-efficient, compared to traditional Intel and AMD x86 chips. About 40 percent of them are used in devices you may not expect, says ARM Holding marketing VP Ian Ferguson, such as in-car infotainment systems. Companies like Texas Instruments also make a bevy of chips -- some based on ARM, others not -- that power everything from sensors to alarm clocks to garage door openers to beacons.

Then there's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, including the networkless Wi-Fi Direct (WiDi) variant standard in recent mobile devices and computers. (This is how Apple's AirDrop works, as well as Windows' and Android's Miracast.) The two networking standards are commoditized, so they're finding their ways into all sorts of devices.

Industry efforts like Thread are trying to develop a constrained communications standard that lets devices communicate over a common protocol (as opposed to a radio technology) without the full computation and energy consumption overhead of the typical IP stack. The Thread effort sees IP at the edge of the stack, so the low-requirements communications eventually can connect to the Internet and heavier-weight systems, but it doesn't force every component to be able to do so.

Basically, it's getting cheap and easy to put a chip in it. And it's getting easy to add coprocessors for everything from motion detection to radio connectivity, from graphics processing to encryption. More devices can compute and connect as a result. Power sources are shaping up as the limiting factor, so there's lots of research on everything from better batteries to converting radio waves or motion into power.

There are three clusters of real IoT activities, and each is on its own path. Some paths may cross, but understanding the three separately will help you strategize about your own IoT engagement:

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