A lot of talk in the tech world lately has centered on an idea called “The Internet of Things”. What is “IoT”, as it is commonly abbreviated? Is it just the latest in a laundry list of tech buzzwords? Or is it something that is really going to change our lives?
Let’s begin with a definition. I scoured the Internet for a good definition but never found one that really jived with my concept of IoT. There were many definitions but none exactly agreed with the next definition. The best was, surprisingly enough, from Wikipedia which defines IoT as “the interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded computing devices within the existing Internet infrastructure. Typically, IoT is expected to offer advanced connectivity of devices, systems, and services that goes beyond machine-to-machine communications (M2M) and covers a variety of protocols, domains, and applications.” I like this definition because it says everything and nothing at the same time. To be sure the Internet of Things is nascent at best. As an entrepreneur, the lack of a common definition, let alone the actual implementing technologies, means there is an opportunity to be on the ground floor of a potentially explosive new segment of the technology industry. But key is whether the potential will turn into actual sales of products and services.
To begin, let me share a story about a project using inexpensive technology that I am working on today. I recently ordered a package of assorted RFID tags to do some testing with a new RFID reader I was evaluating for a client’s project. In that package I was intrigued to find an RFID tag embedded in a nail. A nail that, other than the RFID chip, was no different than what is found at your local home improvement store. Imagine the possibilities in the infrastructure world that uniquely identifiable nails or screws could enable if coupled with electronic or MEMS based sensors. You could surgically apply resources to maintain and repair infrastructure based on data instead of predictive maintenance models that can be wrong. This would save money and ensure the right repairs are made at the right time to the right infrastructure. This exists today! Surely IoT is closer than we think! But recall the definition we started with; these technologies must also be interconnected.
To counterbalance this enthusiasm I look no further than my own home. For years we have been promised that home automation was on the cusp of being adopted by the masses. And while you can go into a big box store and pick up a set of Belkin WeMo devices, home automation is still a hobbyist’s affair at best, with lighting being the most predominant remotely controlled aspect of our home. Though thermostats are catching up as the Nest thermostat gains popularity. So why is mass adoption of home automation still a dream? I submit that it is because after all these years, we still lack a common protocol that is used across all automation devices, regardless of manufacturer. That makes people scared to commit as it means you are effectively committing to a monopoly as you seek to expand and upgrade your automation hardware. IoT may suffer the same fate.
For the full promise and potential of Internet of Things to be realized, it is going to require a level of interoperability we take for granted with the Internet but is unheard of for home and building automation, even for those automation products that ride the TCP/IP backbone of the Internet already. And we are seeing different standards emerge for the IoT to include Thread (backed by Google), the Open Interconnect Consortium (backed by Broadcom and Atmel, amongst others), Industrial Internet Consortium (backed by Cisco, Intel, AT&E and IBM), AllJoyn (developed by Qualcomm). This is much like the competing standards and product specifications we have seen in home automation which includes X10, Z-Wave, UPB, Insteon, and C-Bus to name a few. Even the industrial world has many competing automation protocols such as BACnet, LonWorks, and ModBus.
For IoT to succeed, in my humble opinion, will require adoption of a standard akin to 802.11 (Wi-Fi) or 802.15.1 (Bluetooth). In addition, due to the sheer number of devices that will need a unique IP address, IoT will require mass adoption and utilization of many new technologies and standards such as IPv6. The technology industry has been relatively successful when it comes to computer and Internet standards. Perhaps as companies like Google and Apple enter the IoT market they will be able to bring the critical mass needed for adoption of an IoT standard, much like we are currently seeing with NFC payment adoption being driven by Google Wallet and Apple Pay.
I’ve never been afraid of being dead wrong on predicting the future of technology. I predict that the Internet of Things will be more than a simple fad, but the path to reach the promised land is probably going to be a lot longer and a lot more difficult than we anticipate, if history is any guide. However, as the cost of embedding such technology into every day products plummets, the promise of smart infrastructure and products that can relay potentially lifesaving or cost-saving data will become irresistible. That is, if we can tackle the problem of device standards and interoperability protocols.
What are your thoughts? Is the Internet of Things going to change our world? If so, how? Share your thoughts in the comments down below.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the co-founder of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and embedded security research firm located in Western Maryland. He produces the Gears of Resistance Podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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