Today's Formative Internet of Things Is Probably Doomed, Say Computer Scientists

What takes its place stands a much better shot.

Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne

Image: Dudley B. Batchelor, Jr./Flickr

To build the Internet of Things we have to first know how, exactly, it's defined, which also means understanding where it came from and what it encompasses in its current, still-primordial state. Such a wide-angle perspective is the goal of a team of South Korean computer scientists, who ask in a recent paper in the International Journal of Web and Grid Services, "Really, what is the internet of things?"

It's not so much that there's a lack of answers to the question so much as there is an overabundance. This seems to be the thrust of the group's report, anyway.

"Despite the hype about the IoT, there appears to be confusion about what the IoT really is, i.e. whether the IoT is 'anything new,' and how it works, i.e. how it is put together," the write. "In a sense, the IoT is not really new. All the components of the IoT have been around for some time: the Internet, smart embedded devices, sensors of various types and communication technologies that connect devices. There have been numerous services where devices collect data from sensors, and transmit it to other devices or central servers (e.g. capsule endoscopy, RFID receiver), and where applications actuate and manage remote devices (e.g. telematics, vacuum-cleaning robots)."

Indeed, the bare idea of connecting machines to each other in a network is not especially new. The first "thing" or device connected to the internet is often taken to be a Coke machine at Carnegie Melon University. It could tell its masters (computer science grad students) whether or not it was empty and whether or not each individual bottle was warm of cold.

So, we had a thing connected to the internet even before we had personal computers (mostly), but the South Koreans make an interesting point that the IoT is more so a matter of scale. Thousands or even millions of machine-only IP addresses added to the internet is one thing, but the 30 billion devices forecast to comprise the IoT by 2020 means that the IoT is really just the internet itself, as human users will be increasingly dwarfed by Coke machines, thermostats, cars, and smart-meters, among billions of other things.

Image: Yoo et al

Beyond offering a rough Wikipedia-ish sketch of the IoT—the high-level view of how it's implemented, what it means for specific industries, etc.‐the group points out that managing all of this hardware and data will require a vast new industry and will come with a few fairly gnarly challenges. Devices need to be cheaper, more energy efficient, more secure, and easier to program. Meanwhile, accommodating all of these new IP addresses will require global adoption of the IPv6 internet protocol, e.g. the thing that allows traffic to be routed across the internet according to a uniform communications scheme.

Hence, the paper offers a rather bleak outlook on the contemporary, formative internet of things. Namely, we can probably expect most of it to go the way of that Coke machine.

"Although many IoT applications have come to the market, the big challenge is to develop IoT applications and business models that will fill the unmet needs and wants of users and will make a lot of money for the providers," the authors conclude. "Many of the current applications are just testing the market. Although many are getting some attention from the trade press and early adopting users, we think most of them will not be successful in their current form, as it has always been the case when a new paradigm or new application possibilities open up."