Posted by Matt Egan 21 January 2014
What is the Internet of Things? (And why most of what we saw at CES 2014 is the 'Internet of Stuff'.)
Wonder what people are talking about when they reference the 'Internet of Things'? You're not alone. Here we explain the Internet of Things, and why we are currently living in the Internet of Stuff. A different thing altogether.
Tech loves jargon. Whenever there's a legitimate development in the world of consumer- or business technology, you can guarantee that there'll be a buzzword or -phrase close behind. Here's an example: 'Cloud computing' is a game changer for enterprise- and personal-tech, but that hasn't stopped every man and his dog appending the word 'cloud' to any site or service that even tangentally relates to the matter in hand. A website is not necessarily 'cloud computing', but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. And so it is with the Internet of Things.
At the recent CES 2014 tradeshow - the world's most important consumer tech show, remember - analysts and vendors fell over themselves to describe every gadget and gizmo as pertaining to the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things is indeed an important concept, and it is likely to take great steps toward maturation in 2014. But that doesn't make all the hacks at CES knew what they were talking about. Here we explain what is the Internet of Things, and then how it relates to your life, and the devices you use and will use. (See also 10 trends and products from CES 2014 that are great, weird or just plain stupid.)
What is the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things speaks to the idea that in a world of big data anything - objects, people, even animals - can be quantified, measured and connected. In the theory of the Internet of Things objects and living creatures will be tagged with unique identifiers such as RFID, and then become part of a network. The Internet of Things then, is made up of people and physical objects. It's a three-dimensional version of the world-wide web, itself made up of bits of data.
If that all sounds a bit far-fetched, look at the number of ways in which objects, animals or people are currently provided with unique identifiers. Look at how we automatically transfer the data generated by those people and objects over a network. Every item in your local supermarket is tagged with an RFID chip - it doesn't require human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction in order that the stock controller can know where everything is at any one time. The same is true of cows on a dairy farm.
And although you may not personally have a chip embedded in your brain, if you carry a smartphone or a connected activity tracker you are creating and uploading to the web a trail of data about where you've been, what you have done, and even what you like. If you shop for groceries online you are also uploading information about how much of what you consume each week. The theory of the Internet of Things is that if you had a connected fridge and cupboards, you could take delivery of just the right amount of food and drink each day without having to request it. Your bank account would get a little emptier each day, but your fridge would stay full. All you'd have to do is remember to chuck out the old milk. For now at least.
The concept behind the Internet of Things evolved from the convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems and the internet. And it may sound futuristic, but most of the pieces are in place. We're really just waiting for the practical applications to converge. (See also: The quantified self: apps that monitor your life to help you live better.)
The Internet of Things now
The Internet of Things exists... kind of. But it will take some commercial convergence and a push from users to make it properly come together. As ever in the post-web world things will look very different in 18 months.
Consider wearable tech - the big success of the year at CES 2014. All those smartwatches and activity trackers are nice gadgets, but they also form an important brick in the building of the Internet of Things. When you use an activity tracker you are quantifying your physical life: your movements and aerobic activity, how much you sleep and so on. Use a social device such as a Fitbit and you are sharing that information with the wider web. You are a physical part of the Internet of Things.
Google Glass is another way of tagging you and garnering your personal data. But it also shows the reverse effect: walk around with Google Glass enabled and you can see that data already attached to physical buildings and landmarks. Plenty of things are already part of the Internet of Things. (For more on this, see Using Google Glass: 5 things we love, 5 things that need to get better (and probably will).)
When you add in the fact that all your web-searches and -surfing are being recorded for marketing purposes, that you have an online bank account, a Facebook account and all the other life data that you upload, you can see that it is possible to create a very detailed picture of you as an object that is part of the physical Internet of Things.
If you consider then all the connected forks, crock pots and internet fridges we've seen at CES over the years, and you can see how it could come together. The internet already knows what you like and how much money you have, throw in the contents of your fridge and how much exercise you did today and what you ate, and it isn't too much to ask for your connected cooker and cupboards to have a meal ready for you to make when you get home - with the oven on. Which brings us to the connected home idea: another key component of the Internet of Things.
Google recently bought Nest - principally famous for building a connected thermostat and smoke alarm. And Google doesn't spend billions of Dollars unless it senses an opportunity. The ability to remotely measure, record and control what goes in your home is here today. It's not cheap, but it will get cheaper. Free even, if Google is a lead player. We're not too far away from a world in which you use Google not only for everything you do online, but also for the way you interact with physical objects. And if that means I Can't Believe It's Not Butter adverts inside your fridge... well, history tells us that we all happily accept that.
What needs to happen to make the Internet of Things a reality
The tech is mostly in place. And for enterprise the Internet of Things is a reality right now. On the personal tech side what needs to happen now is that consumers buy the goods and sign up for the services. For that they need to incentivised by a better standard of living. And all the various devices and services need to work together.
A good analogy for me is the current battle for your choice of broadband, smartphone and media supplier. Apple, Google, BT, Sky, Virgin, Microsoft et al all want to provide you with everything from on-demand TV, through cellular and broadband connectivity, to music downloads. Right now, however, I expect that you use at least two of the companies in that list for those services. You may be able to start watching a film on your iPhone and finish watching it on the Apple TV, but that doesn't really help if you have a Sky Plus box in the front room.
That particular fight will work itself out over the next couple of years. It will mean good deals for consumers in the short term, some sort of standardisation of platform, and some mergers and pain for some of the big players over the medium term. The Internet of Things may take a little longer to properly work itself out.
All the individual players need to work out commercially viable ways of making this stuff work together. And they need to do so in a way that is attractive to consumers. Getting us all to carry smartphones, log in to Google accounts and wear smart watches and -glasses is a start. But buying connected home automation kits and internet fridges is a ways off, and will be a harder sell unless the benefits are clear. Overall the practical applications of the Internet of Things will become meaningful to consumers only when it all comes together.
Why CES 2014 was the show of the Internet of Stuff
Which is why I would say that a lot of things we saw at CES 2014 don't really yet relate to the Internet of Things. Rather, we are living right now in the era of the Internet of Stuff. A quick inventory shows that I am typing on a desktop PC, with two smartphones, a tablet and an activity tracker about my person. I am an extreme example because I am a technology journalist, but even those multiple devices don't really work together in the way that the Internet of Things demands.
Meanwhile at home I have neither a smart cooker, connected fridge or -thermostat. My car remains resolutely free of apps (and this writer thinks cars should stay free of apps). Yes, I can access the web pretty much everywhere I go, and my web use means that I am becoming a part of the internet of things. But not a fully formed object, and with a life not fully connected.
The truth is that I will upgrade all of those appliances and devices only when the current ones clap out. And when the companies glueing all of this stuff together make it worth my while to do so.
The Internet of Things is coming, mark my words. In a beta sense it is already here for consumers. But right now what we have is a bunch of stuff. The Internet of Stuff. See also: What to expect of Internet of Things in 2014.