Kevin Ashton, now general manager of electronics company Belkin, is generally credited as the person who coined the phrase 'Internet of Things' in 1999 during his time at consumer goods multinational Proctor & Gamble. Ashton has recounted how he used the phrase in a presentation during a presentation: "the new idea of RFID in P&G's supply chain to the then-red-hot topic of the Internet".
The idea was linking the 'network of networks' — the internet — to physical objects, transforming it from being a mostly intangible collection of data to encompass 'things' that people can touch.
Essentially, it is the idea that any electronic device can be linked to the internet to allow each device to ‘talk’ to each other.
In the decade and a bit since Ashton coined the term, wireless networks have become ubiquitous and smartphones equipped with cellular radios, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and, increasingly, NFC, are commonplace.
Rob Livingstone, principal at Rob Livingstone Advisory, defines the concept as the aggregation of any device which has an electronic footprint which can be linked to a physical object. For example, a television set with an RFID tag.
Professor Mary-Anne Williams, associate dean (research and development) at the University of Technology, Sydney, says the technology works by linking sensors embedded in electronics such as fridges, cars and smartphones through the internet. These electronic devices currently work independently of each other, so the washing machine can’t send an alert to a smartphone to let consumers know where it is up to in the cycle, for example.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if you could launch an app on your iPhone and see where the cycle is up to and see whether you should rush upstairs and move things to the dryer?” Williams says.
“The technology is there. It’s getting cheaper and cheaper and it’s invading our lives in different ways, but it’s still very limited because most technologies are trapped on a single device.”
Barriers to adoption
Many of the barriers to adopting the Internet of Things in the home revolve around design issues. For example, Williams says a substantial amount of intelligence is required to enable alerts to be sent when the user wants to receive them – not when the events actually occur.
“There’s a strong need to design the interfaces and the behaviour of these objects appropriately. That’s the bottleneck because it’s about usability – it’s about being practicality [and] it’s about making sure that objects behave with a certain level of common sense,” she says.
Williams uses the example of running out of milk. While she says it is relatively easy for a fridge to detect when there is no milk – either through cameras or weights on the fridge shelf – enabling the alert to be sent, and when, is more complex.
The Internet of Things not only has potential in the home, but businesses could also benefit from it to find out what is happening in real time. For example, it could be used to track the exact location of parcels or drivers.
Google has already made a move into this area, with the release in June this year of Google Maps Coordinate which allows businesses to track exactly where employees are located through Google Maps.
“If you have more information about where people are and where packages are, you can make smarter decisions and you could save money on petrol and people’s time because you can allocate jobs much more effectively,” Williams says.
“The other big [issue for businesses] is risk – you want to reduce risk and the more information you have, the lower your risk is because you can make decisions with information available instead of making guesses.”
Williams says the Google Maps Coordinate feature could also provide an underlying infrastructure for the further development of the Internet of Things. For example, a child could use a Google Map app that showed how far off their parents were from picking them up from school.
Livingstone says retail businesses could also use it to increase efficiencies and it could potentially eliminate the need for checkouts. For example, a retailer could tag items with RFID or a near field communication-type device which would allow it to identify when an item is being moved around.
“If everything was connected with some sort of identification device, then you could eliminate a checkout altogether and just push the shopping cart through this detector and it would automatically scan everything in the shopping basket,” he says.
This concept is already available in libraries which allow users to place all items on a scanning device to be scanned together, as opposed to scanning each individual item.
However, Livingstone questions the value of the Internet of Things and said it is unclear how widely it is currently being used.
“The perception of the market that is selling these devices versus what is actually happening may be quite a disjoint,” he says.
While there is some excitement brewing about the technology, the adoption of the Internet of Things may still be some way off.
There are numerous issues around privacy and security. For example, allowing a fridge to connect to the internet could create potential holes for hackers to get into personal networks. How readily consumers will accept these potential invasions of privacy remain to be seen, Williams says, but a tightening of online security will help.
“The better our techniques become in managing privacy and security then the more likelihood [there is that] people will look at that trade-off. That’s what we see with Facebook. We all know the perils of privacy invasion on Facebook, but yet Facebook seems to offer a lot of value and people are prepared to give up that privacy to access the services,” she says.
“That is an example of a tipping point where people perceive the value of Facebook was much higher than the potential downside of privacy invasion.”
Ultimately, though, Livingstone says privacy barriers could be overcome with the implementation of legislation covering consumer and business privacy rights. But he questions whether legislation is keeping pace with the rate of change in technology.
“I think there’s going to be a time lapse between stuff happening and being legislated and also managing the compliance around that is no small task. I think [the Internet of Things is] a bit of a watching brief,” he says.
Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0
Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.