Futurists and technologists have been predicting an "Internet of things" for a few decades now. If you're unfamiliar with the concept, it essentially predicts a world where most physical objects — from pallets of goods in a warehouse, to your car, or perhaps even your cat — would have some sort of identification mechanism that allowed them to communicate with a computing device. Your warehouse would never run out of a certain item, since it would be intelligent enough to know how many finished goods were on hand and supplier availability of the finished goods. Your car would tell the service station its history, and your cat might trigger an email alert to your mobile phone when he strays into a neighbor's yard.
Recently, the concept is evolving beyond merely tagging physical objects to having actual computing devices embedded in all manner of objects. Even the mundane light bulb is not immune, with Google prototyping a "smart" bulb with an embedded processor and Wi-Fi interface that can communicate with other household devices and the internet at large. In our home, a connected device was once an anomaly, and now everything from our television to our alarm panel has a network interface.
What about tablets and the enterprise?
Tablets and other mobile devices are an obvious component of the larger trend. Whereas your most technically sophisticated power user of years past might have a desktop and a laptop that required connectivity and network resources, that user might now add a tablet and a couple of mobile devices to the mix, essentially doubling the demand placed on your network infrastructure. This may give your network ops people heartburn, but it presents a fairly compelling opportunity.
The more sci-fi aspects of an enterprise of things: having instant component visibility at your suppliers, etc. seemingly requires a bit more effort than slapping an RFID tag on everything, as recent failures around that technology have demonstrated. What is more interesting about an enterprise of things is that it unlocks vast amounts of data stored in your enterprise and likely forces you to rationalize and optimize much of it.
The "magic" of the tablet
Tablets are immediately accessible to most users. Even infants can grasp the touch-based interface and poke and prod their way around an iOS or Android device. Many of the CIOs I've spoken with have mentioned conversations with executives who want various data, reports, and applications on their tablets after immediately grasping the power of a portable, connected device. Reporting, dashboards, and mobile data access were once budgetary dead ends, but many executives now want that information on their tablets and are more willing to commit the necessary resources to accomplish that end.
An enterprise of things with profuse tablets in the mix also enables a whole new category of applications and data gathering. Where mobile interfaces to complex back-office systems were once prohibitively expensive and based on proprietary technologies, the major players in the tablet market are essentially standardized Windows or UNIX derivatives, sitting atop familiar protocols like HTTP and TCP/IP. In essence, you have a highly connected, standards-based "thing" with a pretty interface on top.
While it's tempting to see the hassles of this shift to a world of connected "things," from increased bandwidth and infrastructure demands to increased support costs, your peers outside IT are being dazzled by the possibilities. Beginning the shift in thinking from a world of stationary, complex devices to a world of connected, mobile computing devices can allow IT to spearhead this revolution rather than to be taken for a ride.
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 over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.