What is IoT?

May 25, 2017 • Leon Hounshell

I wrote an essay for Forbes about understanding the Internet of Things (IoT) amid the confusion surrounding its individual constituents. After years of working with connected devices and platforms, I’ve noticed we still often struggle to communicate effectively about what the IoT actually is.

What is IoT?

The Internet of Things emerged conceptually at the dawn of the millennium with the notion of using Internet Protocol (IP)-based networks to enable radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and sensors that would collect and transmit data automatically. It’s obviously grown beyond that simple aim, but that doesn’t mean it’s some radically new and impenetrable technological construct. My basic premise is that the IoT isn’t a revolution, so much as a natural evolution of computing.

Understanding IoT

To briefly recap some of the information covered in my article, the first step to understanding the IoT is to set the context for defining it. As Carnegie Mellon’s Jason Hong explained, the Internet of Things “represents the third wave of computing. The first wave focused on computation — making the basics of computing work. The second wave centered on networking — connecting computers together in a global network. The third wave, of which we are in the early stages, aims to make computers part of the physical world in which we live. Computation, communication and sensation are being woven into everyday objects, all of which contain, and indeed are, computers.”

Specific IoT examples I’ve personally cited include retail fulfillment systems, smart home apps, industrial robots, fitness trackers, virtual assistants, autonomous vehicles, smartphones, and Google. Obviously, that’s a pretty broad reference array. But the IoT is all of these and more. It applies to every element of technology that connects, or has the potential to connect, to another piece of technology or to a human user — and that list of elements grows daily.

The ultimate vision is of every technologically-enabled “thing” being able to engage with the world and communicate in some meaningful way. That is not a pipe dream. It’s been gradually coming to fruition over the past 20 years and is already deeply embedded in how we use our gadgets and tools — and in our expectations about how they should work. The IoT is how we fulfill those expectations. It is the amorphous connective tissue for the body of modern computing.