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What is the IoT? Everything you need to know about the Internet of Things right now

What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the billions of physical devices around the world that are now connected to the internet, all collecting and sharing data. Thanks to the arrival of super-cheap computer chips and the ubiquity of wireless networks, it's possible to turn anything, from something as small as a pill to something as big as an aeroplane, into a part of the IoT. Connecting up all these different objects and adding sensors to them adds a level of digital intelligence to devices that would be otherwise dumb, enabling them to communicate real-time data without involving a human being. The Internet of Things is making the fabric of the world around us more smarter and more responsive, merging the digital and physical universes.


What is an example of an Internet of Things device?

Pretty much any physical object can be transformed into an IoT device if it can be connected to the internet to be controlled or communicate information.

A lightbulb that can be switched on using a smartphone app is an IoT device, as is a motion sensor or a smart thermostat in your office or a connected streetlight. An IoT device could be as fluffy as a child's toy or as serious as a driverless truck. Some larger objects may themselves be filled with many smaller IoT components, such as a jet engine that's now filled with thousands of sensors collecting and transmitting data back to make sure it is operating efficiently. At an even bigger scale, smart cities projects are filling entire regions with sensors to help us understand and control the environment. 

SEE: 5G: What it means for IoT (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

The term IoT is mainly used for devices that wouldn't usually be generally expected to have an internet connection, and that can communicate with the network independently of human action. For this reason, a PC isn't generally considered an IoT device and neither is a smartphone -- even though the latter is crammed with sensors. A smartwatch or a fitness band or other wearable device might be counted as an IoT device, however.

 

What is the history of the Internet of Things?

The idea of adding sensors and intelligence to basic objects was discussed throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and there are arguably some much earlier ancestors), but apart from some early projects -- including an internet-connected vending machine -- progress was slow simply because the technology wasn't ready. Chips were too big and bulky and there was no way for objects to communicate effectively.

Processors that were cheap and power-frugal enough to be all but disposable were needed before it finally became cost-effective to connect up billions of devices. The adoption of RFID tags -- low-power chips that can communicate wirelessly -- solved some of this issue, along with the increasing availability of broadband internet and cellular and wireless networking. The adoption of IPv6 -- which, among other things, should provide enough IP addresses for every device the world (or indeed this galaxy) is ever likely to need -- was also a necessary step for the IoT to scale. 

Kevin Ashton coined the phrase 'Internet of Things' in 1999, although it took at least another decade for the technology to catch up with the vision.

"The IoT integrates the interconnectedness of human culture -- our 'things' -- with the interconnectedness of our digital information system -- 'the internet.' That's the IoT," Ashton told ZDNet.

Adding RFID tags to expensive pieces of equipment to help track their location was one of the first IoT applications. But since then, the cost of adding sensors and an internet connection to objects has continued to fall, and experts predict that this basic functionality could one day cost as little as 10 cents, making it possible to connect nearly everything to the internet.

The IoT was initially most interesting to business and manufacturing, where its application is sometimes known as machine-to-machine (M2M), but the emphasis is now on filling our homes and offices with smart devices, transforming it into something that's relevant to almost everyone. Early suggestions for internet-connected devices included 'blogjects' (objects that blog and record data about themselves to the internet), ubiquitous computing (or 'ubicomp'), invisible computing, and pervasive computing. However, it was Internet of Things and IoT that stuck.

How big is the Internet of Things?

Big and getting bigger -- there are already more connected things than people in the world.

Tech analyst company IDC predicts that in total there will be 41.6 billion connected IoT devices by 2025, or "things." It also suggests industrial and automotive equipment represent the largest opportunity of connected "things,", but it also sees strong adoption of smart home and wearable devices in the near term.  

Another tech analyst, Gartner, predicts that the enterprise and automotive sectors will account for 5.8 billion devices this year, up almost a quarter on 2019. Utilities will be the highest user of IoT, thanks to the continuing rollout of smart meters. Security devices, in the form of intruder detection and web cameras will be the second biggest use of IoT devices. Building automation – like connected lighting – will be the fastest growing sector, followed by automotive (connected cars) and healthcare (monitoring of chronic conditions). 

What are the benefits of the Internet of Things for business?

The benefits of the IoT for business depend on the particular implementation; agility and efficiency are usually top considerations. The idea is that enterprises should have access to more data about their own products and their own internal systems, and a greater ability to make changes as a result.

See also: How SMBs can maximize the benefits of IoT initiatives

Manufacturers are adding sensors to the components of their products so that they can transmit data back about how they are performing. This can help companies spot when a component is likely to fail and to swap it out before it causes damage. Companies can also use the data generated by these sensors to make their systems and their supply chains more efficient, because they will have much more accurate data about what's really going on.

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