What is this Internet of Things, thing?

While we await a sensible use of the IoT, we are, for now, seemingly revelling in this brand new phenomenon that has, in fact, been bounced around for a couple of decades. Yep, that’s right, you may or may not know, but the notion of the Internet of Things isn’t new!


July 21, 2014

7 Min Read
What is this Internet of Things, thing?

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third-party contributors to submit analysis on a key topic affecting the telco industry. In this first piece of a regular contribution, technology author Dean Anthony Gratton takes a sceptical view of the hype surrounding the Internet of Things.


Everybody stop it – yes, stop it!

What I mean is, everyone is talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) as if it’s some life changing experience – well, I don’t necessarily want to be the bearer of a reality check but it’s not! Well, at least not for now. It’s just a term; a simple phrase that’s captured a new sense of excitement and imagination across an industry that’s always eager to deliver the next big thing. In fact, the likes of Intel, Samsung, Dell and many others have established a consortium to help shape and deliver a sensible notion of just how and what the IoT might deliver to both the consumer and industry.

So whilst we await a sensible use of the IoT, we are, for now, seemingly revelling in this brand new phenomenon that has, in fact, been bounced around for a couple of decades. Yep, that’s right, you may or may not know, but the notion of the Internet of Things isn’t new!

This Internet of Things, thing isn’t new

The initial reference to IoT was made as far back as 1994 as the furore surrounding the Internet garnered momentum. But the most notable supposition was made by Kevin Ashton in 1999, where his original conjecture described how ‘objects’ might be capable of being tracked using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). This original supposition has since been extended to describe the ability to track ‘objects’ within an IP capable or similar structure.

For example, such objects can be tracked in various area networks, such as a local or wide area IP-enabled or similar structure. What’s more, such smart objects or ‘things’ are all interconnected, distinguishable and can uniquely manifest themselves within an IP (or other) structure. These smart objects are indeed empowered to collate and share data with other like-enabled objects and, of course, us! Hence the notion of ‘big data,’ which is often used synonymously with IoT. As such, these objects or things have an ability to portray a representation of their ‘world’ and, along with their essence of intelligence, they, in turn, become instrumental in collating new and more accurate data which, perhaps, continues to feed the incumbent knowledge-base of the Internet (The Handbook of Personal Area Networking Technologies and Protocols, Cambridge University Press, 2013).

It seems the industry has hijacked Ashton’s original concept and has distorted; no wait – blown it out of all proportion to mould it into a harness that seems to encapsulate a host of technologies that didn’t quite make it first time around. For now, it’s just an umbrella that seems to cover a myriad of wireless technologies, applications and services; home and commercial automation, Machine-to-Machine (M2M), the smart grid/metering, even healthcare and a whole bunch of other stuff are bundled beneath it. With these applications and services now shielded beneath the IoT umbrella, they have experienced a fresh new look from the industry that has, in turn, made them trendy through their association with ‘the Internet of Things’.

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First world problems

The ‘smart home,’ for example, has been touted since the dawn of man – okay, an exaggeration perhaps, but I can remember how lights within the home could be controlled from afar in the ‘90s, which probably coincided with the furore surrounding the Internet. Nonetheless, the smart home, at that time, was a somewhat fanciful way of controlling your home to possibly deter the would-be burglar who happened to be tip-toeing around your grounds and who would then see a light illuminate in the lounge, in turn, alerting the scallywag that indeed someone was home and consequentially would hopefully send the unsavoury chap on his way.

But didn’t we have plug-in socket timers for that?

Anyway, even with a modern day approach to the smart home and with the advancement of technology, I’m still not completely convinced that I need my fridge, for example, to tell me my milk is low, as I can always nip down the road and pick up a carton from my 24-hour convenience store – this is borderline a first world problem! In fact, I don’t want my fridge to tell me anything other than give the occasional beep to let me know its door is open – I don’t want to receive an email or text from it and it certainly shouldn’t send me an alert via a tweet or Facebook post!

Taking a realistic perspective

So, let’s be realistic about what the IoT can achieve. If we’re absolutely honest with ourselves, so far as this new founded hypothesis is concerned, it’s early days, and whilst we have this notion still bouncing around in our noggins, we are very much talking about the Internet. And, on this reflective note, I have to ask: “Do we really need everything to be connected?” The fridge doesn’t need to be connected to the Internet, nor does my dryer or washing machine for that matter! I can just imagine the squawking of security ‘experts’ telling us “Your fridge will be hacked!” Yes, some hacker has deliberately informed me that my milk is low?  That dastardly unsavoury chap – he’s such a scallywag!

Seriously though, we don’t need everything to be connected. If we can start with improving home and commercial automation, for example, through the technologies touted to enable an IoT ecosystem, such as ZigBee, Bluetooth low energy, EnOcean, a number of associated protocols and so on then perhaps we can start to architect a better road map for the future.  The aforementioned technologies seem to be doing quite well on their own, but they have been flagged as technologies that will enable the IoT ecosystem. This reaffirms my notion that, for now, IoT is an umbrella term – IoT as a supposition needs to stand alone, perhaps with the help of these Wireless Personal Area Networking (WPANs) technologies, but IoT, for me, lacks a personality, something that’s important for the everyday consumer to identify with, as well as the overall industry, since the latter folk will be developing this future technology.

Shaping this Internet of Things, thing

With the likes of Intel, Samsung, Dell and many others creating consortiums, standards and associated protocols, I hope the IoT can be captained in such a way that we’ll begin to see real-world solutions taking shape, as well as IoT developing its personality. We are still very much in the early days of the ‘new’ Internet of Things, despite such notions being touted as far back as 1994. Let’s avoid the misguided hype mantra that usually besets a young technology and, instead, build an ecosystem that may indeed become a life changing experience.

Until next time…

This is my first Telecoms.com feature and in future posts, I will be covering a number of wireless technologies. I’m so passionate about how wireless technology is perceived by the everyday consumer and am often guarded when I witness the industry blanket the market with jargon and hype. With this in mind, I hope to dispel the gossip and rumours, and offer you a realistic perspective of what’s what.

So, for now, this is where Dr G signs off.


TheNewDrGWithFedora(head-original)About the Author

Dr Dean Anthony Gratton is a bestselling author and columnist, and has worked extensively within the wireless communications R&D industry. His wireless research work has been patented.

You can contact Dean at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter (@grattonboy) to enjoy his risqué humour, witty shenanigans, social media and technology-related tweets. You can also read more about his work at deangratton.com.


Image credit: “Internet of Things” by Wilgengebroed on Flickr – Cropped and sign removed from Internet of things signed by the author.jpg. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Internet_of_Things.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Internet_of_Things.jpg

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