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.
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.