The Internet of Things, which is commonly called IoT, refers to the billions of devices around the world that are connected to the internet through sensors or Wi-Fi. It's basically a giant network of objects that connect to the internet. Each device collects data, and this data, known collectively as big data, is exchanged and analyzed.
IoT-connected smart devices can be an everyday item such as a phone, car, watch, washing machine, or refrigerator. IoT devices can also be components of machines and systems, such as on an oil rig or airplane engine.
As costs go down, IoT is more accessible than ever. Gartner estimates that about 8.4 billion IoT devices were in use in 2017, up 31% from the previous year, and it will hit 20.4 billion by 2020. Total world spending on IoT hit about $2 trillion in 2017.
IHS, a global data and information services business, reports that by 2030, 125 billion connected devices will be part of our daily lives.
SEE: Internet of Things policy (Tech Pro Research)
What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?
IoT is a layer of digital intelligence that makes a device smarter than it would be on its own.
As Lisa Elénius Taylor, head of IoT marketing for Ericsson explained, "at the most basic level, the Internet of Things is a network of devices, vehicles and appliances that have software and connectivity capabilities which enables them to connect with one another and exchange data."
Examples of common IoT devices include a diverse collection of small items such as smart thermostats that learn your preferred home temperature, light bulbs that alert you to outdoor air quality, smart locks that you can open from an app on your phone, and stuffed toys that calm your child at night. It also includes bigger items such as driverless vehicles, jet engines, and sensors on a machine in a manufacturing plant, which can also be called machine-to-machine (M2M). There's also industrial IoT, which is known as IIoT.
Typically, IoT devices are items that, in the past, weren't connected to the internet. Every year at CES, for instance, there's a wealth of new IoT-connected devices that amuse and astound, such as connected diapers to tell you when your baby needs to be changed, and pillows that stop your spouse from snoring.
However, it's not just things that make up IoT—it's devices, as well as insights gathered from the data, and the action taken based on the data.
IoT and big data
The vast amount of data collected by IoT devices is known as big data. This data is used for everything from predictive analytics to determining the best way to market to a customer. Many companies have spent years collecting data and still haven't figured out what to do with it. This data is valuable, and data scientists are among the most in-demand careers in tech.
Cisco calculates that machine-to-machine connections that support IoT applications will account for more than half of the total 27.1 billion devices and connections, and will account for 5% of global IP traffic by 2021.
IoT and the cloud
Since such vast quantities of data are being transmitted through IoT devices, for many companies it is necessary to use the cloud for data processing. Cloud computing giants such as Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, and Google Cloud are among those offering IoT services.
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When did the IoT revolution begin?
The 1980s and 1990s were about more than bad fashion and better music—the concept of adding sensors and intelligence to commonplace items became a topic of discussion. The technology didn't yet exist to make it happen, so progress was slow.
The adoption of RFID tags (low-power chips that can communicate wirelessly) solved some of this issue, along with the increasing availability of broadband internet and cellular and wireless networking, said ZDNet's Steve Ranger. The adoption of IPv6 was also a necessary step for IoT to scale.
Kevin Ashton, a British technology pioneer working on RFID, coined the phrase "Internet of Things" in 1999, although it took at least another decade for the technology to catch up with the vision.
IoT was at first used mostly in the enterprise, such as in manufacturing, but now when most people think of IoT, they also think of smart devices in their home, ranging from thermostats to AI-powered speakers and home security systems.
What are the benefits of IoT for businesses?
Businesses use IoT for detecting and troubleshooting issues remotely, predicting maintenance needs, tracking production line efficiency, monitoring devices, and in other ways.These are all things that directly impact a company's revenue.
IoT is growing fast, and businesses are relying more on IoT for operations. Often, the addition of IoT in the enterprise is known as a digital transformation.
International Data Corp. reports that the three industries expected to spend the most on IoT this year are manufacturing ($189 billion), transportation ($85 billion), and utilities ($73 billion).
Taylor said, "IoT has the potential to change industries at its core. The digitalization that IoT is part of is sometime called the 4th industrial revolution. Since IoT can affect anything that can be connected it means that IoT is truly an ecosystem of ecosystems where coopetition is a typical element. Companies work together in different constellations for different business needs and create joint benefits. To act in an ecosystem environment is paramount in IoT. The value of IoT lies in the data that the connected devices collect."
- Enterprise IoT calculator: TCO and ROI (Tech Pro Research)
- Harnessing IoT in the enterprise (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)
- How to start an IoT project at your company (TechRepublic)
- How to monetize your IoT project: 6 steps (TechRepublic)
- How to use IoT to save money on your office bills (TechRepublic)
What are the benefits of IoT for personal use?
IoT can make tasks easier. If you have a connected refrigerator, it's possible to use a mobile app to glance inside your refrigerator to see if you have an ingredient, even when you're at the grocery store. By adding connected light bulbs to your home, you can turn on lights with simple voice commands. The possibilities are endless.
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- A personal story: Did the Apple Watch save my life? (ZDNet)
- How wearable sensors helped the US Olympic team win 121 medals at Rio (TechRepublic)
What are the security risks of IoT?
The biggest downsides of IoT include reduced privacy and security risks. If an item you use is connected to the internet, then the opportunity for undetected surveillance is enormous.
IoT privacy and IoT security have been ongoing concerns for consumers and enterprises. No one wants to have their personal information shared without permission, yet when a customer opts in to an app, or shares their data with their smartwatch manufacturer, personal details are being collected and analyzed.
Sensors throughout the home can be used to determine all sorts of details about the home's occupants. Wearing a smartwatch during sex can even lead the manufacturer to know when you and your partner are having intercourse because of mutually elevated heart rates and activity via real-time data.
"The IoT bridges the gap between the digital world and the physical world, which means that hacking into devices can have dangerous real-world consequences. Hacking into the sensors controlling the temperature in a power station could trick the operators into making a catastrophic decision; taking control of a driverless car could also end in disaster," according to Ranger's ZDNet article.
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- IoT security: What you should know, what you can do (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
- Photos: The 11 least secure connected devices (TechRepublic)
How do specific industries and smart cities use IoT?
IoT for manufacturing
Manufacturing equipment can be monitored through sensors and advanced analytics; this is also known as M2M, Industry 4.0, and IIoT. The combination of predictive analytics and maintenance can reduce expensive downtime in a manufacturing facility. Operational productivity and profitability are improved in a connected factory.
Connected factories can include tools with sensors and mobile apps that can be used to help workers and technicians be more efficient and accurate. GE Aviation is using Upskill's Skylight industrial AR platform with Google Glass to improve efficiency and avoid manufacturing maintenance errors, as reported by TechRepublic.
Hershey leveraged IoT, cloud computing, machine learning, and big data to regulate production at its factories and save $500,000 for every 1% of improved efficiency, as reported by TechRepublic.
- How an Indiana IoT lab is digitally transforming manufacturing and agriculture (TechRepublic)
- How to leverage the industrial internet of things (ZDNet)
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IoT for smart cities
This year, 2.3 billion connected things will be used in smart cities, according to Gartner. The global market for smart city solutions and services was $36.8 billion in 2016 and is expected to top $88.7 billion by 2025, according to Navigant Research.
Smart cities have a variety of IoT devices in place, from parking sensors connected to a mobile app to alert drivers of open parking spots, to video cameras in smart streetlights, weather sensors, and gunshot detection devices. Buildings in a smart city are filled with IoT solutions to improve energy efficiency and reduce operating costs.
A smart city is a safer city, with better traffic regulation, emergency systems that are more efficient, and faster police and EMT response times.
- The world's smartest cities: What IoT and smart governments will mean for you (TechRepublic cover story)
- Portland kicks off smart city initiative with traffic sensor safety project (ZDNet)
- Raspberry Pi-powered Boom IoT sensor detects nuclear explosions, tornadoes, rockets (TechRepublic)
IoT for utilities
IoT is essential for utilities, as these companies scramble to keep up with consumer demand for water and energy. The International Energy Agency expects global energy demand to increase by 28% by 2040.
Energy and water use can be more efficient with IoT solutions, with smart meters connecting to a smart energy grid to more effectively manage energy flow into buildings.
Smart water sensors track water quality, temperature, pressure, and usage. This data is used by the water company to analyze how customers are using water and to help them be more efficient. Water leak detectors are used to find tiny leaks that can lead to huge water waste.
- South Korea's IoT in full swing: From water meters to AI-powered smart buildings (ZDNet)
- Water data is the new oil: Using data to preserve water (ZDNet)
IoT for transportation
By 2020, there will be 250,000 million connected vehicles on the road, according to Gartner.
When a layer of IoT is added to vehicles, it helps improve transportation and logistics through remote monitoring and data analysis. For the enterprise, this means using predictive analytics to fix potential issues in vehicles before a breakdown occurs; it also means optimizing delivery routes in real time. For individuals, it means having IoT-enabled vehicles that connect to smartphones and even to their own home for a seamless experience.
- Keeping transportation safe in tomorrow's smart city means taking wireless security seriously (TechRepublic)
- How the IoT is keeping traffic moving and the streetlights shining (ZDNet)
IoT for retail
According to a research report by Global Market Insights, Inc., IoT devices in the retail market are predicted to reach over $30 billion by 2024.
In retail, data from beacons, video cameras, and smart shelves give a retailer information on how customers shop in their stores. Consumers can be helped through digital kiosks and mobile apps to give them a more personalized experience. Smart shelves can help with inventory tracking.
Retailers who use IoT make merchandising decisions based on data collected from the sensors that show how customer traffic flows through the store. Operational efficiency can be improved by better allocating staff to needed areas.
- Data, AI, IoT: The future of retail (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)
- 4 ways IoT can improve the customer experience (TechRepublic)
IoT for healthcare
In healthcare, IoT is used for the care and treatment of patients, equipment maintenance, and hospital operations.
Medical assets such as supplies and medicine can be tracked by an IoT cloud platform. Vital medical equipment can be kept in top condition with predictive maintenance. Sensors can be used to monitor a patient's room temperature or how often the patient moves in bed.
Some patients receive care outside of a hospital setting through wearable sensors that track heart rate, blood pressure, and more. When there's a problem, their doctor is alerted, and treatment can be scheduled.
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- A smart toilet may be the future of IoT healthcare (TechRepublic)
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IoT for smart homes
The range of products available for a smart home are growing daily. There's everything from smart light bulbs, to smart refrigerators, to smart thermostats, and, of course, smart speakers, such as the AI-enabled voice assistants from Google, Amazon, Apple, and, soon, Samsung.
A smart home security system enables the user to monitor who enters and leaves their home at any time of day, and it's possible to remotely unlock a door to allow a housekeeper or someone else to enter.
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For seniors, a smart home can make them feel more secure, with an adult child able to monitor them from afar, and help them if they are ill or injured.
Currently, less than a quarter (23%) of consumers use smart home devices; however, more than a third (36%) are interested in testing out connected home applications, according to CSG's The Future of the DIgital Experience: IoT Edition.
- Best Smart Home Devices for 2018 (CNET)
- How IoT is empowering the elderly to become healthier and more productive (TechRepublic)
What are the hottest IoT jobs?
IoT is booming. With billions of connected devices already in play, and billions more predicted to be added in coming years, it makes sense to focus careers on areas that encompass the Internet of Things. The addition of IoT devices has led to bigger IT budgets, security concerns, and jobs for skilled pros who can deploy and manage connected networks.
There are three general types of IoT jobs:
- Jobs that focus on the technology behind IoT projects. This includes the software, hardware, and network side of things, such as IoT solution architect, IoT software engineer, IoT analyst, cloud engineer, IoT app developer, machine learning designer/developer/engineer, or IoT software developer.
- Jobs that focus on big data and how to analyze it for insights. This includes data scientist, database architect, business intelligence (BI) analyst, data engineer, or data analyst.
- Jobs that focus on IoT security to keep the network and devices secure. This includes security engineer, security analyst, security specialist, security architect, security management specialist, and infrastructure engineer.
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What's next for IoT?
IoT will continue to grow, as the associated costs drop and it becomes even easier to add devices. And whom better to ask about the future of IoT than the man who coined the term Internet of Things?
Ashton, when speaking to TechRepublic's Alison DeNisco Rayome at LiveWorx 2018 said, "I don't think the progression of the Internet of Things is going to be linear. We're going to see more and more Internet of Things, applications, more and more Internet of Things value every year. So, although we're 17 years in, we're not 17% done yet. And I think what we're going to see is increasing integration of network sensors into things like manufacturing processes, robotics, transportation systems."
The smart home is receiving plenty of attention, but Ashton said he's more interested in self-driving cars because they will have a radical impact on how we live.
Ashton said, "I really believe that adjusting to the Internet of Things age is a gradual, continuous process, not some sudden revolution that delivers immediate benefits."
Ericsson's Taylor said that in the future, "we expect to see a connection to 5G. In our discussions with our customers, it's clear that IoT and 5G are now components of the same strategic discussion. A year ago, they were treated separately. Networks and distributed computing will form the basis of advanced high-value use cases as 5G technology emerges and grows. The work starts now to define the use cases where the value is created."
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- The future of enterprise IoT: 2 factors to watch (ZDNet)
- The Future of IoT, book review: It's all about the data (ZDNet)
Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.