What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

When you leave your house do you set an alarm? When you’re out for a morning jog do you wear a watch capable of telling your heart rate and progress? Last question, have you seen those new refrigerators that have the capability to write a grocery list for you? Well, you have encountered the Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things, IoT, smart devices, the fourth industrial revolution – you may have heard these words tossed around with increasing frequency in the last few years. And lots of items that used to be “dumb,” from coffee machines to cars, are now connected to the internet. So, what is the Internet of Things, how does the IoT work – and why do you need it?
Internet of Things (IoT) concept illustrated by hands holding devices and icons of connected objects
The Internet of Things connects countless smart devices

The Internet of Things (IoT) describes the concept of connecting any device to the internet, resulting in a gargantuan network of objects and people that collect and share data. This could in theory also refer to devices that have been connected to the internet for a long time, like computers, but the term “IoT” is generally talking about the new connectivity of devices that were not traditionally “smart” – think wearable devices or self-driving cars.  Another defining characteristic of the Internet of Things is that the objects can “talk” to each other, like the sensors in a smart home or factory that share information to control lights, temperature or inventory levels.

How does the Internet of Things work?

The Internet of Things is made up of “smart” devices – objects with built-in microchips and sensors that are connected to an internet-based platform with data collection and processing capabilities. These IoT platforms use analytics to identify what information is actually useful, and then could potentially act on this information by sharing it with other devices and applications or making recommendations for further actions. This follow-on work would be then largely done without human intervention.

To give an example of the potential of translating IoT technology in real life, a company might have a fleet of trucks moving its inventory or delivering its products. IoT sensor data on traffic conditions could be sent to a central platform, which could dynamically manage routes based on this data as well as emerging weather patterns and or vehicle and driver availability. Or in the home, smart technology could be used to channel the energy from solar panels to certain appliances at the ideal time based on usage patterns and forecasted sun hours.
 

Types of IoT

The Internet of Things focuses on connectivity throughout many fields, showing how truly connected we are. It is not only limited to things that we are all familiar with in our day-to-day life such as washers and dryers, smart TVs, refrigerators, and vehicles.  

Consumer IoT: These things refer to the everyday devices that we are all familiar with. CIoT are used to simplify everyday life tasks by allowing for insights on different aspects of control, environment, and activities. A key component distinguishing CIoT from other internet of things is the emphasis on personal and home environment. Yes! We are talking about Alexa, your smart watch, and any smart appliances.
  • Smart home devices
  • Smart appliances
  • Smart wearable technology

Commercial IoT: Commercial Internet of Things spans across many sectors and industries; however, its main goal is to provide operational efficiency and allow for decision-making based on data. An example would be a smart vending machine that equipped with Commercial IoT technology which then keeps track of the inventory, or more importantly for the vending machine user, the contactless payment options.
  • Home security systems
  • Smoke detectors
  • Smart road signs
  • Smart meters
  • Remote patient monitoring technology

Industrial IoT: IIoT is used to improve efficiency between physical machinery and smart equipment or digital technology in interconnected systems. Just as commercial IoT, IIoT stretches across multiple industries. One example of this would be your energy consumption meters that are at your house but can be remotely access by your energy provider to determine how much energy was used.
  • Remote monitoring and control
  • Inventory monitoring
  • Smart farming technology

Infrastructure IoT: Infrastructure IoT focuses on the interconnection between technologies that are critical to infrastructure and public services. This involves sensors, monitors, and the optimization of infrastructural assets. Examples of this would be public transportation systems and facilities, as well as utilities.
  • Smart transportation
  • Water management technology
  • Road and highway sensors

To give an example of the potential of translating IoT technology in real life, a company might have a fleet of trucks moving its inventory or delivering its products. IoT sensor data on traffic conditions could be sent to a central platform, which could dynamically manage routes based on this data as well as emerging weather patterns and or vehicle and driver availability. Or in the home, smart technology could be used to channel the energy from solar panels to certain appliances at the ideal time based on usage patterns and forecasted sun hours.

Advantages of the IoT

The examples above are just a few of the doors that can be opened by IoT platforms. Using smart technology to automate certain tasks boosts efficiency and saves time and money in many different industrial sectors. In addition, the benefits to human health and safety should not be underestimated. For example, if sensors in factory equipment detect an impending failure, this can trigger proactive maintenance measures that will not only prevent a production slowdown, but also protect worker safety. Connected sensors in vehicles make programs like lane keeping assist possible: A car that is drifting in traffic is automatically steered back to the center of its lane, potentially saving lives. And while a smart speaker that responds to a voice command to play your favorite song might seem like a fun but unnecessary luxury, such IoT devices have been game-changers for individuals with visual impairments or other disabilities.

Challenges of the IoT

With all these advantages, is there a downside to the Internet of Things? One of the main concerns is privacy. After all, anything connected to the internet can theoretically be hacked. So, it is possible that the IoT could be misused for surveillance and location tracking, to gain access to networks, or to steal user credentials. This is obviously an area where strict regulation must be applied, as well as extremely high standards for cybersecurity. Reliable standards in general are another challenge facing the IoT, which relies on connected objects communicating with each other. If they all run on different standards, it can make this communication and sharing difficult, if not impossible. Companies like Microsoft are responding by offering managed platforms for businesses looking to set up IoT devices.
 

Bonus Explainer: History of the Internet of Things


Merriam-Webster dictionary dates the term “Internet of Things” to 2001, which shows that the concept has been with us at least since the beginning of this millennia. And indeed, some sources credit Kevin Ashton, an engineer working for Proctor & Gamble, with coining the phrase as early as 1999. This was the period where we saw the emergence of RFID tags, low-power chips placed on objects that took advantage of new wireless and broadband technology to allow tracking and tracing of the items. Such systems represented an early version of the IoT.

Several other steps have been necessary to facilitate the widespread use of the Internet of Things. For example, increased connectivity and the rise of cloud computing are giving more and more individuals and companies access to the infrastructure needed for the IoT. Advances in machine learning and analytics have also been essential to the advanced IoT applications that are emerging today. Since every connected device needs an IP address, the adoption of IPv6 (which employs more characters than IPv4) will also play a key role. After all, the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that by 2025 there will be 55.7 billion connected devices worldwide. That’s a lot of “Things”!

We hope this article answered your questions about the Internet of Things. Please leave us some feedback below!

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This article first appeared on December 5, 2021, and was updated on October 26, 2023.  
 

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