As with many emerging technologies, the Internet (or Internets) of Things isn’t a discrete phenomenon. But rather arises from combining developments in other technologies, in particular, the last decade has seen advances in both hardware and software that are key enablers for current and future IoT technologies.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is, broadly speaking, the concept of combining the connectivity of the Internet with a myriad of physical devices that can sense, transmit and act on information. At the mundane end of the spectrum, this describes devices like “smart” thermostats and electricity meters that can connect to the internet and take some action (updating a user’s energy bill, switching on someone’s boiler). At the more extreme end, some analysts envision a world containing millions or perhaps billions of connected devices and sensors forming vast meshes of “cyber-physical systems” where every aspect of day-to-day life is influenced by pervasive connected technology.
Or maybe not quite yet.
Underlying tech (hard)
Advances in materials, sensing and actuator technologies have removed many of the barriers that would have made some IoT applications impractical a few years ago. For example, for years batteries have been the largest single bottleneck in the electronics industry. While the last decade has seen modest advances in battery capacity, a far more significant development has been an overall improvement in energy efficiency. Silicon chip manufacturing has made small power-efficient systems not only achievable but affordable at large scale.
Underlying tech (soft)
IoT applications have also benefited hugely from new approaches to computing overall. Cloud-computing solutions are now the default for many applications and with that has come the commodification of cloud storage and computing facilities enabling more or less any size of organisation to make use of cloud platforms run by tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft.
Likewise advances in mobile networks have made and continue to make IoT devices easier to connect (arguably the more important aspects of 5G networks aren’t the high-data throughput for most users but more fringe technologies under the 5G umbrella that enable low-energy long-range connections for far-flung devices that don’t have the same data-hungry needs of a typical smartphone).
Depending on your perspective the one major strength or major downside of IoT technologies is that, by their nature, they stand to drastically increase the quantity of data available in a plethora of applications. Organisations investing in IoT systems can readily find themselves in an ever-expanding sea of information where they are simultaneously data-rich and insight poor. Efficiently processing and understanding potentially vast amounts of data are key tools for unlocking the most from internet of things applications and so technologies that can handle this deluge of data, in particular developments in AI and Big Data processing techniques are vitally important synergistic technologies.
Look at the state of this*!
Currently, the IoT stands at an important stage in its development. Despite media attention going largely to devices aimed at casual consumers, overall lack of standardisation has meant the IoT has had far greater reach into industrial silos and some enterprise applications where an organisation owns the entire system, but where interconnection outside of highly vertically integrated organisations has proved hugely challenging.
That said, some progress has been occurring. Common standards around IoT connectivity have started to emerge and this is an important marker for potential future integrations. However, these have largely been focused on the smart-home market, which grabs headlines but leaves larger industrial and enterprise players struggling to realise connectivity ambitions beyond their own systems.
In the second part of this Internet of Things series, we’ll take a more grounded look at current and next-generation applications and how they can (and already are) having real-world impacts.
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