Defining the Internet of Things

What is the Internet of Things? What isn't it? With the help of insights from representatives at the Connected Cloud Summit, Joe Stanganelli explores.

By Joe Stanganelli | Posted Oct 30, 2014
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BOSTON – At last month's Connected Cloud Summit, Peter Utzschneider, Oracle's VP of product development and the Summit's first keynote speaker of the day, gave a stirring, evangelistic speech on the past, present, and future of Internet of Things development.

And then he argued that Uber is an Internet of Things application...with little backup explanation.

Uber, an on-demand livery service, works by giving customers a mobile app to tell Uber where and when they want a ride. The app then notifies local drivers and alerts the customer when a driver arrives.

Utzschneider is not the first to designate Uber beneath the IoT umbrella, but does it really fit the definition of the Internet of Things? Or is it merely one step in the direction of an IoT world? For that matter, what is the definition of the Internet of Things?

The Visions that Define the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things conceptually embodies futuristic visions of automating the minutiae of our lives. Ideally, IoT will optimize every aspect of our morning routine, guided by our preferences for shower temperature, coffee timing, food preparation, etc. It will make our travel arrangements intelligently, using up-to-the-minute traffic and weather data. It will refine our workflows, prioritizing tasks and projects based on ongoing assessments in real time of what is happening throughout our organization. The Internet of Things will maintain our appliances and vehicles, determining when they are next due for service, cleaning, or – in the case of our refrigerators – restocking (and making appropriate arrangements, such as repair appointments and grocery orders). It will enable our cars to communicate with other cars on the road as they self-drive us to and fro. It will regulate our lights, heat, AC, and other home appliances and devices, turning them on and off as we enter and exit rooms and as they "learn" our schedule. And that's not all.

In short, IoT has the power to meet our every whim and every need before we even consciously realize what we want, thanks to intense interconnectedness and automation.

Other Summit speakers shared a similar philosophy. Brendan O'Brien, Aria Systems chief architect and panelist in a later session, predicted an IoT-enabled, data-converged world in which, while traveling and far away from home, his wearable device would – upon detecting a potential health problem – simultaneously notify an ambulance, the local hospital, his own primary care doctor, and his health insurance carrier.

These examples are clearly true IoT visions, but what, precisely, makes them fit the definition of the Internet of Things?

Elements Defining the Internet of Things

Obviously, two key elements of any Internet of Things definition are the Internet (or, at least, some form of networking connectivity) and "things."

There's more to it than that, however. Arriving at an accurate Internet of Things definition requires more than adding IP connectivity and the word "smart" to a device.

Laila Partridge, managing director of Code On Technologies and guest panelist at the Summit, gave her two cents in a series of interviews with Enterprise Networking Planet, pointing out three necessary elements that define IoT technology:

  • Effecting Real-World Change

According to Partridge, "IoT is…an embedded device where you're able to effect change in real time[.]"

Narayn Sridharan, IoT practice leader at Cognizant (another company represented at the Summit), agrees with Partridge's assessment of this "change" element and offers clarification. "[I]f an interaction remains virtual, then it is not IoT," Sridharan told Enterprise Networking Planet. "For example, when GPS on a wearable device is used for navigation, it isn’t IoT[;] however, when the same GPS on the wearable device is used to open a door, it is IoT."

  • No Display Required

When it comes to the Internet of Things, "you don't necessarily want a human being making the judgments," says Partridge.

She uses the example of her own life as the co-founding head of a Cambridge, Mass., tech startup and the myriad of devices she must use and balance on a day-to-day basis. Laptops, tablets, phones, and more permeate Partridge's prosaic modus vivendi.

"I don't think I can handle more than six [devices]," posits Partridge. Yet machines, she points out, don't "tap out" like people do. They can handle much more data and many more task management responsibilities than a human being. Anything, therefore, that requires a display – implying human assessment and human decision-making – is actively counterproductive to IoT achievement.

  • Ability to Automate

This is the missing link with Uber and other mobile applications adopting the IoT buzzlabel: they lack automation on either end, making Uber little more IoT than email.

That said, there is little doubt that Uber is an IoT springboard. Tim O'Reilly suggests in a Forbes column that all Uber needs to reach true Internet of Things enablement is a self-driving car. Taking it further, imagine how useful it would be if Uber could predict your need for a ride before you called for one, perhaps by monitoring your schedule, your geolocation data, and/or your blood-alcohol level.

It is useful to recognize technological developments that may eventually be leveraged to realize a full IoT future. Parsing out the concept is more than mere pedantry, however. It is keeping one's eye on the prize.

Does your Internet of Things definition agree with ours?

Header photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Joe Stanganelli is a writer, attorney, and communications consultant. He is also principal and founding attorney of Beacon Hill Law in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.

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