There’s no Internet of Things, just Things on the Internet

Why Data Mining and not it’s encompassing term, Knowledge Discovery in Databases (KDD)? Why the World Wide Web and not the Information Superhighway? Why the Internet of Things and not Ubiquitous Computing? If history has taught us anything, some terms catch on, become buzzwords and form a nucleus around which technology and applications coalesce, other terms don’t.

The Internet of Things has got the hype machine going and is near the peak of every Gartner Hype Cycle since 2012. The industry is on the bandwagon, just look to the Consumer Electronic Show. Internet giants, electronics makers, consultancy firms and academics all want a role in defining the Internet of Things — making some of the 25 billion devices or pocketing part of this $14.4 trillion market predicted for 2025. Beneath the hype, the Internet of Things really does have a lot of potential, it’s just that perhaps what we’ve gone about doing so far is putting Things on the Internet rather than building the Internet of Things.

Things on the Internet

One of the first domains companies making Things want to conquer is the Smart Home. Smart TVs and Smart Thermostats are already part of many households and its just a matter of time before more fridges, lights and laundry machines get IPv6 addresses and are connected to the Internet.

These connections are usually done using a WiFi connection to the residential router. Once the Things are connected to the Internet, they individually send and receive information to and from their manufacturers. Essentially, it is a system where each Thing, connected to the Internet, interacts with an application on the Internet (probably in a cloud) and storing the data produced on a database there. Depending on the Thing and the application, it might process some of the data, make some ‘smart’ decisions, do some reasoning and send feedback or instructions to the Thing. Usually the Thing is equipped with advanced functionality through this Internet connection.

Besides the terrible inefficiency apparent in the whole process, sending everything to a server miles away for processing, whats even worse is that at least some functionality of Things are dependant on their connections to the Internet, their manufacturers continual support of applications and on the integrity of the manufacturers when it comes to privacy and security of the data produced.

Another undesirable outcome is a phenomenon that is called ‘the basket of remotes’.

Basket of Remotes

If you have a television, a DVD or Bluray player, a set-top box for cable television or streaming TV and a home entertainment system, you probably know the pain of having multiple remote controls.

Given the self sufficiency of the way Things on the Internet work, manufacturers have little motivation to cooperate on interoperability. Of course there are positives to get Things to play nicely with each other, especially when there is a need to build interfaces and Things that control and manage other Things. However, each of the large players sees comparative advantage in grabbing a significant part of the early market share and building ecosystems around their products than spending too much time waiting for standards to be agreed upon.

Whether its a basket of remote controls, control smart phone apps or control websites it is the consumer that losers in this ‘Basket of Remotes’ scenario. A poignant example is that of Social Networks and online services. You have a username and password for each new network you sign up for. Initially, each of the companies just concentrated on building new features, gaining consumer base, keeping them and monetising. OpenID and OAuth, which allow you to use your credentials for one site to sign up for and access other applications and sites seems somewhat like an afterthought. Facebook and Google launched OpenID support only in 2009 and 2008 respectively and now Facebook has developed their own Facebook Connect instead.

The Internet of Things as a Philosophy

The landscape of enabling technologies for the Internet of Things is likely to change and develop rapidly over the next few years. Whether it will run off the Internet or something else, whether it will be an entirely globally interconnected network or whether it will consist of smaller private subnets and one large public network is something that is still in flux.

What I think the Internet of Things will be though, is a development where machines can(or might opt not to) communicate with each other and their human users to impact society collectively in terms of efficiency and productivity through automation. In another words, the Internet of Things will be more than the sum of its parts.

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