What the 'Internet of things' really means

Get past the confusion caused by all those technologies claiming to be in the Internet of things

Answer a call or go to a conference these days, and someone is likely trying to sell you on the concept of the Internet of things. However, the Internet of things doesn't necessarily involve the Internet, and sometimes things aren't actually on it, either.

In some cases, the Internet of things is simply a buzz phrase that companies use to sell whatever they've long had -- just as the cloud, green, Internet, e-, and mobile labels have long been abused. But there is a there there: The Internet of things has a real meaning that's useful to understand, as it will affect nearly every corner of both IT and consumer technology.

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At its core, the Internet of things means just an environment that gathers information from multiple devices (computers, vehicles, smartphones, traffic lights, and almost anything with a sensor) and applications (anything from a social media app like Twitter to an e-commerce platform, from a manufacturing system to a traffic control system).

Basically, you need data and a means to access it -- that's where the "Internet" label comes from, though of course you don't need the Internet itself, or even an always-on network connection. The Internet may be the backbone of an Internet of things, but it's not the only bone in that body. Then you need something that works with that information to analyze it, act on it, or otherwise process it. That something is typically software, whether automated, semi-automated, or human-controlled.

The intrigue of the Internet of things

Where the Internet of things gets interesting is when you combine information from devices and other systems in novel ways, tapping into the huge processing capabilities available today to do the kinds of expansive analysis usually associated with the concept of big data -- meaning analysis of data not necessarily designed to be analyzed together.

Otherwise, you're talking about sensor networks and machine-to-machine (M2M) networks common in factories, hospitals, warehouses, and even streets (think the streetlights and "next bus" electronic signs) or network-connected product systems (like an Apple TV-based entertainment system, the Bluetooth stereo in your car, or iPod Touch-based cash registers in retailers) -- useful but not profoundly new.

To achieve the notion of the Internet of things, you need most of the following pieces in place:

  • Network connectivity, which is typically wireless
  • Sensors and/or user input that capture or generate data
  • Computational capabilities, at the device and/or back end

I say "most" because you could have a store-and-forward connectivity approach such as plugging a device into a USB port on a computer. Store-and-forward is essential in any case, because connectivity is not ubiquitous, so you need a way to send data captured when offline. That's a hallmark of the Internet, which was initially designed to allow communications even after a nuclear war through store-and-forward and auto-rerouting.

Putting the things in the Internet of things

You need things, but they need not be independent items like printers or earbuds or sneakers or golf clubs -- yes, there are golf clubs that monitor your swings and upload their data to apps that help teach you to golf better. A thing in an Internet of things could be simply status information, such as where you are or where the temperature is at a certain location or the engine temperature -- that may be collected through a general-purpose device such as a computer or smartphone. In other words, the thing itself need not be in an Internet of things, though data about it must.

And you need a purpose for having all these connected devices. There are thousands of possible purposes -- perhaps millions. That is why the Internet of things is not a thing but a concept that can be applied to all sorts of things. In most cases, those purposes are expressed through applications or services -- whether local, cloud-based, data center-based, or a combination of any or all of those.

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