History of IoT: What It Is, How It Works, Where It’s Come From, and Where It’s Going

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Not so long ago, the idea of connecting everything with everything may have sounded like some far-fetched futuristic idea – a bit of fun for science fiction enthusiasts, but not something we would likely experience in our lifetime. Then it started happening. The internet exploded across the world. Suddenly, everyone had a PC and we were all “surfing the web” at every opportunity. We started sending emails, and businesses around the globe quickly realized the efficiencies that could be gained through digital transactions and electronic communication. Next, demand rose for portability. Laptops became as common as pocket calculators, with “internet cafes” and “Wi-Fi hotspots” soon entering mainstream public lexicon. It wasn’t enough. We wanted the internet in the palm of our hand at all times – and smartphones, 3G and 4G mobile networks put it there. Now, we’re looking at our things. Our home appliances, security systems, and cars. Our machines, factories, and office buildings. Our cities and infrastructure. We want all of our things connected to all of our things – and, if your things aren’t already connected, they soon will be, especially as the fifth generation of mobile broadband technology (5G) rears its head above the horizon. And so here we are – welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT Concepts – What Is IoT Exactly?

The broadest definition of IoT encompasses anything and everything that connects to the internet, including your smartphone, tablet, desktop and laptop. However, the term is often used in a slightly narrower sense in that the “things” being referred to are other objects that can talk to each other – smart speakers, plugs, lights, heating systems, fridges, cars, etc. – as we have come to assume that smartphones and computers are already internet connected. Strictly speaking, though, the Internet of Things consists of any device with an on/off switch that connects to the internet – mobile phones and all.

IoT, however, isn’t just about connectivity – it’s about combining the connected devices with automated systems to gather data for the purposes of analyzing that data and taking an action.

Let’s think about this with some IoT examples.

IoT Examples

The smart fridge always seems to come up in IoT conversations, so let’s start there. Say, for example, you’re driving home from work. Your car is connected to your smartphone, which in turn is connected to your smart fridge at home. Your fridge pings a message to your phone letting you know you’re running low on milk. The message comes up on the dashboard of your connected car, which lets you know where the nearest grocery store is, bringing up a map to give you directions. The store’s shelves are also connected, and, lo and behold, your car’s dashboard display pings up the message that your preferred brand is in stock. This is the Internet of Things.

In the workplace, IoT examples include inventory-tracking systems that know when you’re running low on supplies and automatically ordering more. Things like smart desks which alert employees when they’ve been sitting too long is another IoT example. So too are smart speakers – such as Alexa for Business – which enable employees to turn on videoconferencing equipment, check calendars, schedule meetings, and find an open conference room with just their voice.

In industries like manufacturing, IoT sensors in machines, equipment, productions lines, warehouses and vehicles can enable, for example, predictive maintenance – where the data gathered from these sensors produces real-time maintenance reports to alert an organization if a machine isn’t working properly or a part needs replacing. With a sophisticated Internet of Things system of this nature, the faulty part can be ordered and a field engineer scheduled to make the necessary repairs before any business disruption is caused.

IoT-enabled tags and sensors are also extremely useful in the supply chain – from the factory to the lorry to the warehouse to the shop floor, the Internet of Things can give organizations a single centralized view of precisely where everything is, how efficiently it’s being produced, how quickly it’s being shipped, and how fast it’s selling. (In fact, this is where the Internet of Things began in earnest – see “History of IoT” below.)

In healthcare, everything from ingestible sensors to connected asthma inhalers and contact lenses are now becoming a reality, alerting patients and healthcare professionals alike from inside the body to the state of ongoing health conditions and how medications are being taken.

How IoT Works

The possibilities of the Internet of Things in all industries are practically endless – and indeed, the technology has so much more potential than just the smart fridge. But how does the Internet of Things work, and what are the fundamental components of a functioning IoT system?

Well, the first thing you need is sensors and devices with the ability to collect, store, transmit and receive data. Next is connectivity – the data that’s collected needs to be communicated with other machines, and the internet is the primary vehicle through which this usually and most readily achieved. Normally, IoT sensors and devices will communicate with applications and services that are running in the cloud – and if this isn’t achieved via the public internet, then it will be through some sort of private network, depending on the cloud model.

Data processing is the next step. Once the collected data has been passed from the device to the cloud, installed software can begin its analysis. To give you a simple example, data passed from the smart air conditioning unit in your home will be analyzed to check that temperature readings are within an acceptable range. With Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) systems and applications, data processing is where the real IoT value and benefits lie, as the number of devices transmitting data can be huge, providing vital, real-time insights into the state of the business.

(Image source: iotforall.com)

And this brings us on to AI and machine learning. In order for an Internet of Things system to be truly responsive and valuable, the huge volumes of data that are generated require sophisticated analytics software. Here, AI and machine learning engines are applied in real-time to make sense of the incoming data, perform predictive analysis, and autonomously provide an appropriate response. For businesses, this means IoT can help in making important decisions, improving the way they deliver services, produce goods, look after their machines, manage people, and conduct operations.

One final prerequisite of the Internet of Things, however, is security. With the number of IoT-enabled devices growing – and increasing numbers of businesses connecting more and more devices to internal networks – attack surfaces become greater. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, for instance, are a very real threat that put IoT systems at great risk. Here, vulnerable connected devices are hijacked by hackers and used to send vast numbers of queries to the Domain Name Server (DNS), causing it to crash. As such, cybersecurity becomes mission critical for all enterprises implementing Internet of Things solutions – as it does for consumers who have IoT-enabled devices in their homes.

History of IoT

Most sites that try to explain the history of the Internet of Things want to give you the whole story of how the Internet itself – and all the technologies relating to it – came into being.  However, given that it’s pretty darn obvious that you don’t get the Internet of Things without first having a worldwide computer network to connect those things, let’s skip this part and begin with what you’re really interested in – the history of IoT.

So, leaving aside the first radio voice transmission and the development of computers, one of the first truly recognizable examples of IoT – which occurred over a decade before the concept was given a name – was a Coca-Cola machine in the early 80s, located at the Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A student at the uni – one David Nichols – was tired of having to walk what he describes as “a relatively long way” from his office to the refrigerated Coke machine every time he wanted a soda, only to find more often than not that the thing would be empty (or, if it had been recently refilled, the glass bottles inside to be unsatisfyingly warm).

“Suddenly, I remembered tales of the Prancing Pony [the first computer-controlled vending machine] at Stanford and realized that we didn’t have to put up with this, that we had the technology,” Nichols later recalled. Soon, Nichols and a few friends had developed a system to connect to the machine via the APRANET – a precursor to today’s internet – which enabled them to remotely check the status of the machine (i.e. see if there was drink available, and if it was cold) before making the trip. Many say that this vending machine was the first the first true IoT-enabled device.

However, it wasn’t until 1999 that the “IoT” name was coined – and you can blame a guy named Kevin Ashton, Co-Founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Center (later replaced by the more research-oriented Auto-ID Labs in 2003). The “Internet of Things” was the title of a presentation Ashton made for Procter & Gamble while he was still working there as a brand manager. Ashton had been assigned to help launch a line of cosmetics – but he was concerned that every time he went into his local store, a certain shade of brown lipstick always seemed to be sold out. He checked with the people in charge of P&G’s supply chain, who told him that plenty of lipsticks in that color were available in the warehouse. This wasn’t good enough – Ashton wanted to know where his lipstick was, what was happening to it, and why the store couldn’t keep it in stock. However, no one could give him an answer.

At roughly the same time, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags were being developed. Such tags were embedded with tiny radio-enabled chips, which could transfer small bits of data wirelessly. During his “Internet of Things” presentation, Ashton proposed how these RFID tags could be used on P&G products, allowing the identification and tracking of specific objects throughout the supply chain, meaning that the location of stock could be better and more easily monitored. Knowing that the “Internet” – still a buzzword itself at the time – would excite the executives he was pitching to, Ashton worked it into the title of his presentation to the board.  “They had no idea what I was going to tell them, but they knew the Internet was a big deal,” Ashton explained to Tech Republic. “So, if I could get the word ‘Internet’ into the title of my presentation, I could get their attention.”

Ashton subsequently gave hundreds of presentations to corporate leaders about the potential of RFID technology – specifically, how each RFID chip was able to communicate to machines via a wireless network. By 2003, the Auto-ID Center had 103 sponsors, numerous branches all around the world, and commitments to standards so any smart package could talk to networks at suppliers and retailers. Over time, the market developed, investments were made, and chips got better and better and cheaper and cheaper.

(Image source: cisco.com)

By the late 2000s to early 2010s, corporations around the world were starting to get really excited about the Internet of Things – much in the way they’re getting excited about artificial intelligence and machine learning today. IBM began work on its Smarter Planet campaign around this time. McKinsey started writing reports on the state of Internet of Things technology. And Cisco declared in 2011 that IoT was “born” between 2008 and 2009 – the point in time when more things or objects were connected to the internet than there were living people on the planet. In the same year, Gartner added the new emerging phenomenon to its famous Hype-cycle for Emerging Technologies list for the first time.

IoT startups started coming out of the woodwork – such as Nest Labs in 2010, manufacturing products like sensor-driven, Wi-Fi-enabled, self-learning thermostats and smoke detectors. In 2014, Google announced that it would be buying Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. And this was perhaps the moment – bolstered, no doubt, by the emergence of Amazon Alexa and subsequently Google Home – when the Internet of Things was truly brought to the public’s attention, and the market has been positively snowballing ever since.

Final Thoughts and a Look into the Future of IoT

Today, the Internet of Things is drastically transforming how businesses are run, how lives are lived, and how society functions in general. Organizations are becoming increasingly aware of the technology’s potential to improve operations and reach consumers through an ever-expanding network of constantly connected smart devices.

Indeed, IoT is now a burgeoning industry in and of itself. As Carrie MacGillivray, Vice President, Internet of Things, 5G and Mobility at IDC, observes: “Adoption of IoT is happening across industries, in governments, and in consumers’ daily lives. We are increasingly observing how data generated by connected devices is helping businesses run more efficiently, gain insight into business processes, and make real-time decisions. For consumers, access to data is changing how they are informed about the status of households, vehicles, and family members as well as their own health and fitness. The next chapter of IoT is just beginning as we see a shift from digitally enabling the physical to automating and augmenting the human experience with a connected world.”

According to IDC, worldwide spending on the Internet of Things is forecast to reach $745 billion in 2019 – an increase of 15.4% over the $646 billion spent in 2018 – and will surpass the $1 trillion mark in 2022. The industries expected to see the fastest annual compound growth rates (CAGR) over the 2017-2022 forecast period are insurance (17.1%), federal/central government (16.1%), and healthcare (15.4%). The greatest levels of investment in 2019 will be manufacturing operations ($100 billion), production asset management ($44.2 billion), smart home ($44.1billion), and freight monitoring ($41.7 billion). Between 2017 and 2022, the IoT use cases that are expected to deliver the fastest spending growth are airport facility automation (transportation), electric vehicle charging (utilities), agriculture field monitoring (resource), bedside telemetry (healthcare), and in-store contextualized marketing (retail).

(Image source: idc.com)

It can all be traced back to Ashton’s concerns over out-of-stock lipstick. And yet, even as the father of all the IoT innovation we see around us today – and everything that will inevitably come in the future – Kevin Ashton isn’t a household name. Not like, say, Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Jobs. But, private Coke machine projects aside, Ashton’s vision of better supply chain inventory control is where IoT as we know it today truly began – and such is the potential of the hyper-connected IoT world, it’s hardly surprising that the technology has branched out in so many exciting and innovative ways.

What will the future hold? The final pondering of this question goes to the man himself: “What the Internet of Things is really about is information technology that can gather its own information. Often what it does with that information is not tell a human being something, it [just] does something.”

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William Goddard

William Goddard is the founder and Chief Motivator at IT Chronicles. His passion for anything remotely associated with IT and the value it delivers to the business through people and technology is almost like a sickness. He gets it! And wants the world to understand the value of being a technology focused business in a technological world.