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10 things you should know about The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things appears to be moving from futurist speculation to reality. Here's a look at what it is, how it's being used, and what business value it may hold.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has gone from university classrooms and near-science fiction to a common topic in boardrooms and product planning sessions. So what are the 10 key things you need to know about the Internet of Things?

1: What is a "Thing"?

The "thing" commonly referred to by the concept of the Internet of Things is any item that can contain an embedded, connected computing device. A "thing" in the IoT could be a shipping container with an RFID tag or a consumer's watch with a WiFi chip that sends fitness data or short messages to a server somewhere on the Internet.

2: Why now?

If you've been around technology for a while, often what is billed as new and innovative smacks of a past technology that received similar billing. IoT is no exception. You may recall breathless accounts of the coming world of interconnected devices a decade ago with innovations like Java Beans. The primary difference between now and then is the nearly ubiquitous presence of mobile data networks, combined with low-cost and highly capable devices. A decade ago, ubiquitous smartphones and devices like the Arduino would have been unimaginable. Today, they're commonplace and cost less than dinner for two.

3: All about the data

Just as most social media sites are in the advertising business rather than some selfless notion of human interconnectedness, the excitement around IoT for most businesses is around the data that the IoT can generate. In some of the more traditional cases, like a supply chain filled with IoT devices, data about every product moving through the chain has obvious benefits. But everyone from technologists to marketers imagines far more interesting use of the data generated by an Internet of Things -- such as highly detailed, location-specific marketing and consumer products that can "smell" their environment and react accordingly.

So what are some of the common uses of the IoT that are relevant today?

4: Leveling the playing field

A frequently cited use for the IoT is what amounts to telematics data: information about a device's location and status. While this is nothing new, the fact that what amounts to a state-of-the-art telematics device is now in most people's pocket in the guise of a smartphone makes several business models attainable to much smaller entities. Recent examples include things like small companies upsetting big city taxi companies by using mobile devices to create ad hoc, unlicensed "taxicab" networks. Cheap, connected hardware is even allowing for industrial applications that were once the province of companies that could afford expensive, custom hardware.

5: More than marketing

While marketing mavens are salivating over the possibilities of gathering detailed demographic and location data from the Internet of Things, I have yet to meet a consumer who is chomping at the bit for more advertisements directed their way -- especially ads based on the intimate details of their interactions with products and movements around the world. The companies that will meet with the most success with IoT need to offer more than just a "big brother"-style advertising experience. Perhaps a fitness watch might suggest a trip to the local salad bar when you miss the morning workout or your car might schedule your next oil change based on your location and driving habits. These are true value-added services, not just a blanket of advertising.

6: Self-repairing devices

As devices grow increasingly complex, an ability to proactively diagnose, repair, and provide usage information to manufacturers becomes a competitive differentiator. We've already seen the early stages of this innovation, as everything from our phones to our televisions now connect to a network and routinely demand software updates. At the lower end of the spectrum, the costs of these technologies have fallen dramatically, allowing even traditional products to connect to a network and send diagnostic data.

7: Sociology 2.0

Among the less commercial applications of IoT are the opportunities it presents to deepen our understanding of humanity itself. Whether it's somewhat mundane areas, like tracking critical medicines or food supplies, or more nuanced experiments that might track how an idea or trend spreads among different communities, the concept of having "smart," traceable devices that can discern and report how humans interact with them presents an amazing amount of potential.

While these are just a few of the potential applications of IoT, the technology is not without its caveats. Here are a couple.

8: The delicate task of unleashing smart "things"

A recent newspaper article raised questions around the legality of common fitness watches uploading heart rate data to fitness portals. With the prices of these devices at commodity levels, even lackluster athletes like myself can record heart rate data during a workout, upload it to a fitness portal, and glean training suggestions and information on how our fitness has improved. The article mentioned that government regulators were regarding this as medical data and questioning whether they should be subject to the same regulations as traditional health records. Imagine being a smaller company that releases a hit fitness product, only to find that the government now wants to treat you as a medical device maker. Ouch.

9: The devil is in the details

IoT devices combine a multitude of disciplines that are different from conventional products. While your company may already have competencies in IT and technology management, are you ready to embed deep IT capabilities into every product? Can your IT organization that's used to supporting internal email users handle thousands of calls when you botch a firmware update and effectively kill your product? Is your legal team ready to defend against class-action lawsuits or consumer backlash to government regulators? Just because you can drop a connected chip into your product doesn't necessarily mean you should.

10: So are we really there yet?

As mentioned, almost since the dawn of microelectronics there has been a notion of interconnected, smart devices. The technology and networks are ready now, but there are still quite a few question marks, including political and societal readiness to allow our devices to increasingly report on our activity and whether companies can capture and interpret the massive amounts of data that IoT will generate.

More resources

For a comprehensive look at the issues and technologies surrounding the Internet of Things and the emerging Machine-to-Machine (M2M) ecosystem, check out ZDNet's latest feature page, Tapping M2M: The Internet of Things.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

10 comments
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

John Brunner wrote a novel called "The Shockwave Rider" in 1975. Technology has evolved for almost 40 years since that time, but the sociological commentary is still pretty valid. @ DeadlyEarnest: I agree with you on one point: "I'd make damn sure that my Internet access had a router that did NOT allow them access to the Internet at all". Given some of the hidden capabilities of everyday hardware, this might be difficult. If you're a conspiracy theorist, the GUV'MINT already has its own backdoor access to all your hardware anyway. I disagree with your last statement, "Beyond those uses it's more likely just a fancy toy set up." It's more than a toy setup; the implications are downright scary.

Regulus
Regulus

Let me get this straight. 'Internet of Things' is in reality, a euphemism for 'Internet of Stuff'. Now, if this follows, then the reality of IoS is iOS which means that Apple wins. Right?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

About ten years ago I read a magazine article about a group of apartment complexes built in Japan where EVERYTHING in the apartment was computer controlled - they were turned on, off, up, down, and monitored by the computer. You could prepare your evening meal and put it in the oven, program the oven application in the computer with the time heat etc (with a multitude of adjustments), and leave for work; when you arrive home the meal is ready as per what you programmed. Also the air-conditioner turned on at the right time and the apartment is just how you want it. It also included a fridge that kept track of what's in it and prepared your grocery list for you, all you did was confirm it or amend it on the PC and send it off to the store to have it delivered when you get home that night. In some they even had them set to prepare breakfast of a morning, including controlling the toaster and coffee maker. Now, I see this as much the same as that, except someone has decided they need to put it all out on the Internet, but I fail to see the need to do that. I know if I had a house with all these appliances I'd make damn sure that my Internet access had a router that did NOT allow them access to the Internet at all as I don't want stuff going out unless I've approved it. Now, as to how this can be useful - think live telemetry on anything you want and using Ethernet or wi-fi or Bluetooth to send and capture the signals. I can see how useful this would be in a production environment to help with monitoring the production machinery, ad wi-fi or Bluetooth options would reduce the cabling but increase the possibility of EM messing the signal or competitors listening in by parking nearby. With all your production gear hooked up and monitoring via Ethernet in segregated LANs for each line there is benefit. I can also see it being used to provide more remote monitoring in some medical environments. It can also be useful to help with monitoring and managing gardening with computer controlled watering devices etc. Also good for computer controlled access to buildings and rooms can be done by Ethernet instead of lots of dedicated cables. Again, you do NOT want this on the Internet but on a LAN. Beyond those uses it's more likely just a fancy toy set up.

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

a " fitness watch might suggest a trip to the local salad bar when you miss the morning workout or your car might schedule your next oil change based on your location and driving habits " are "true value-added services" only in the mind of the most perverse.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Has there ever been anything connected to the Internet that ISN'T a 'thing'? I'm not aware of anyone who has an Ethernet jack in the back of their head (yet). There are some medical experiments working to improve the use of artificial limbs and remotely controlled tools, but those are limited in nature and I doubt they're connected to the Internet. 'Things' have been connected to the Internet from the beginning, and they're all that have been connected.

chrisnj
chrisnj

Personally, I'm opposed to anything I can't opt out of. This stuff is seductive - and there's probably no greater fraud (well maybe a couple) than the notion that laws will somehow protect information privacy, especially when the puppet-masters infesting our public institutions see an opportunity to enrich themselves or extend their power. I'm all for appropriate technology that does what I want, but it's a short step from there to having it mandated, with a suspicious eye cast on anyone choosing not to have their every breath, movement, and choice monitored. Increasingly creepy.

pgit
pgit

Everything will revolve around insurance companies, just wait and see. EG your "smart" refrigerator will reveal your passion for ice cream in the evenings... insurance rate goes up, your doctor is 'informed,' now he/she has a mandate to do something about your eating habits... and on down the slippery slope.

pgit
pgit

Your reply to DeadlyEarnest is right on. The issue of locking down devices so they have no internet access is not as simple as one would think. You'd probably best be served by denying the initiation of any outbound traffic based on IP. For this you should disable IPv6 on the device, or perhaps even the entire LAN. (perhaps via DHCP on the firewall/router) You should also be aware of whether a device renews a lease in a fashion that would result in a different IP addy, which would defeat IP based blocking of course. The problem is that default settings on packet filter firewalls is to allow a response to anything that originated on the inside. If your device asked for it, the stateful firewall will usually allow the incoming reply. "IoT" devices will probably steal a page from Windows and attempt to set up multicast networks through the firewall. It may be difficult to determine whether any connection is established on the outside, especially via multicast, as the protocol doesn't require a dedicated response to every last packet. Otherwords, your device may be leaking info and a network sniffer wouldn't necessarily reveal this. For me, if sometime in the future you can't buy a new fridge without IP capability, I'll simply not plug it in, and will run it's power through a power conditioner that 'connects' power through a transformer, to prevent IP over the power lines... a route I suspect many of these devices will take. It's gonna be "Brazil" out there, one of these days and soon...

pgit
pgit

of course the real goal is "the insurance company can keep track of everything you do and eat" and "law enforcement can know where you are and what you're doing every waking moment of the day" They just count on people being too stupid to realize that they are paying for, and volunteering into, their own total enslavement. Definitely an easier sell to suggest they are merely thinking of the internal health of you and your car's engine...

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

"things" is intended to mean "more than just what you think of as 'computers'