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Written by Kishore S Swaminathan | Updated: Aug 20 2012, 08:06am hrs
If you havent already heard of Internet of Things, you soon will. There is considerable business and technological momentum behind Internet of Things, also known as IoT. Gartner has put IoT way up there in its hype cycle; practically every major technology company is in the process of developing an IoT product; a number of universities in the United States, Europe and Asia have launched big R&D programs in IoT; the European Union is funding the massive Internet of Things Initiative; and China has identified IoT as a technology of national priority.

The proponents of IoT imagine a world in which billions of objects of various sorts (cameras, pacemakers, RFID tags, sprinklers you name it) are connected to the internet, communicating and cooperating with one another.

Why now After all, this idea has been around for over a decade under different names object internet and machine-to-machine (M2M) being two of the better known and has occasionally been the butt of jokes. So is this old wine in a new bottle Or is this renewed interest based on some major new technological breakthrough

As it turns out, its neither. Much as social networks came of age as more and more people got online, networks of communicating objects are proliferating as the world becomes filled with more and more sensors and other intelligent objects, supporting a broad range of applications. However, there isnt any identifiable single technology called IoT that supports the wildly different scenarios lumped together under this term.

A look back

In the mid-1990s, the World Wide Web was a network of linked documents. Search engines enabled you to find the documents, and links enabled you to navigate across them. Could the internet also be populated by not just documents but objects that could discover one another, establish connections, communicate and cooperate

RFID radio frequency identification was also becoming more common at this time, lending credibility to this idea. The scanner that detects the signal does not have to be in physical contact with the RFID tag, nor do the two have to be in each others line of sight. The technology got a shot in the arm when a major retailer, looking to build a considerably more efficient supply chain, announced that it would be requiring its major suppliers to tag their products with RFID.

Further, many experts opined that if each object had its own unique Internet address, the 4 billion or so addresses available under the Internet standard IPv4 would not be adequate.

Although this problem could be solved by other means, a new standard IPv6 was developed to expand the available number of internet addresses. Why this history lesson To underscore the point that the idea of IoT has a long history of failed technologies and promises in its wake. So, judged by past experience, IoT would seem more like bad old wine in a new leaky bottle.

However, if we take a sober look at devices interacting with one another and with IT systems, we will find a wide range of applications today spanning multiple technologies and industries. RFIDs may not have revolutionized the world, but RFID applications are ubiquitous nonetheless. Your car key has an RFID tag so that your vehicle could not be hot-wired and driven away without your particular key; your employee badge is RFID-based, and so is your dogs collar; hospitals use RFID tags to recognise and track the movement of human and medical assets ranging from medical equipment to blood samples, even patients.

In the utilities industry, smart meters (also called AMI, or advanced metering infrastructure) measure a customers power usage every few minutes and help power companies with demand prediction, which, in turn, can help with peak shaving and valley filling to optimise the use of the power infrastructure. Sensors monitor equipment such as oil pipelines in remote locations to identify cracks, leaks, malfunctions and theft.

Motes (also called smart dust) are small, self-contained chips that can be scattered across a wide area and integrate one or more sensors with a radio and battery. They establish communication among themselves to create an ad hoc network; collectively, they can monitor their environment and raise an alarm when they detect an abnormal condition, such as a sudden temperature rise across a wide area. However, to leverage the power of devices communicating with one another to achieve business value, one has to get past four common myths and misconceptions about Internet of Things.

IoT is a technology: Although the term IoT is useful when referring to a wide range of applications that involve smart devices, you may have noticed that there is precious little in common technologically across the applications mentioned above. IoT is a concept, not a single technology youd buy off the shelf.

IoT is the next wave of the internet: The term Internet of Things conjures up images of billions of objects freely discovering, communicating and cooperating with one another over the internet. This is not only a fairly silly idea, its a dangerous one as well, especially when the devices can perform a physical action, such as opening a door, turning on a conveyer belt, or opening and closing valves in a hydroelectric turbine in response to a command that comes across the internet.

Regulations on data privacy is a critical enabler of IoT: Since sensors can track people and their behavior, critics often claim that privacy regulations are a critical enabler for large-scale adoption of IoT. In my opinion, this is a holdover from the early days of RFID, when that technology was often mentioned in the context of consumer goods and retail.

Even when data privacy is an issue, companies with imagination have always found ways to overcome their consumers privacy concerns by inventing new business models. In other words, companies holding off on IoT because theyre waiting for data privacy regulations are liable to be waiting for a long time.

IoT needs device communication standards: Something else youll hear a lot about in IoT discussions is the lament over the need for various device communication standards.

To be sure, standards never hurt and are particularly useful for applications that cross organizational and system boundaries. But I believe that organisational imagination focused on specific applications in specific industries will be a much bigger enabler of IoT than any sweeping standard across heterogeneous devices that perform a wide range of functions. Today, many companies are reaping significant benefits from device-to-device communication, ranging from asset tracking and supply chain optimisation to unique, industry-specific applications such as customised pricing.

As the IoT hype picks up, common myths about IoT are likely to be perpetuated. But IoT is nothing more than a catchy name for a loose category of applications that involve identifiers, sensors and actuators working with one another and IT systems. But if you really insist that your toaster talk to my refrigerator over the internet, we can definitely use an old, well-known standard:


The writer is chief scientist, Accenture & global director, Accenture Technology Labs' systems integration research