The term “Internet of Things” or “IoT” has come to mean many different things. To some, it describes the trend of many everyday gadgets growing into “smart” or “connected” devices that can be controlled over a network. Imagine a world in which refrigerators know when and how to order milk and eggs, microwave ovens can scan the barcode on packaged foods and automatically set optimum cooking times, and washing machines can sense the type of clothes put in them and alter their wash cycles accordingly.
IoT, in this view, is a set of technologies that allows gadgets and appliances to grow more autonomous, and become more efficient at what they do, freeing us from having to learn how to use and maintain these appliances, and allowing us instead to interact with them in a much more intuitive way.
The Nest thermostat is often used as an example of an IoT device. Nest was able to take an everyday appliance, and re-imagine it as a very intuitive, self-learning gadget. However, IoT does not just turn existing devices into smart devices. It is also bringing new categories of gadgets and appliances to the market. The Fitbit pedometer, the Apple Watch, and the Amazon Echo are all examples of such devices.
The promise of IoT does not end at just new devices. We can go much further, and imagine a world in which every object is uniquely identifiable, trackable, discoverable, and controllable over the network, a world in which devices are controlled by algorithms, and one another, with minimal human input. Estimates for the number of connected devices vary between 26 billion and 50 billion by the year 2020. IoT is thus a very fundamental technology, capable of changing our world as much as the internet did, perhaps even more.
There are three broad technological trends that support the emergence of IoT. First, there is Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of transistors we can pack into a chip will double every 18 months. This has the effect of making computer chips faster, cheaper and more power efficient, all at the same time. It was Moore’s Law that first gave us light, affordable laptop computers, followed it up with powerful smartphones capable of stunning graphics, and is now producing feature-rich microcontrollers at a fraction of their earlier prices.
Microcontrollers can be found everywhere: from microwave ovens to washing machines, from air conditioners to refrigerators, from point-of-sale machines to weighing scales, and from inside high-end cars to cheap toys. As microcontrollers become cheaper and more powerful, it becomes easy to add additional and advanced functionality to all of these products.
The second major force behind IoT is connectivity. The internet is more pervasive than ever before, and its reach is continuing to expand. When it first debuted, the internet was accessible only over dial-up lines. It was slow, patchy, and expensive — paid for by the minute. Today, broadband reaches a third of the households in most developed countries, and mobile broadband brings access to similar levels even in developing countries. Electronic devices, even small ones, can easily be connected to the internet, either directly or via another gateway device.
The third impetus to IoT comes from the profusion of sensors and actuators. Sensors allow IoT devices to sense and understand their environments, and actuators, such as motors, allow them to act upon it. Sensors are a very important part of IoT devices and key to making them autonomous. In fact, Vincent Cerf, the “Father of the Internet”, once termed IoT the “Internet of Sensors and Actuators.”
IoT applications can be divided into two broad categories: Consumer and Industrial IoT. Both these areas present a different set of opportunities and challenges for IoT adoption.
There is huge appetite among industries for automating and improving various processes — in manufacturing, logistics, inventory management, personnel management and so forth. IoT technologies here will need to co-exist and play well along with existing legacy systems. Industrial applications tend to emphasize robustness, reliability and security, since failures can be expensive, if not catastrophic.
DHL’s use of IoT in its warehousing, transportation and last-mile delivery operations is a great example of industrial IoT at work. GE is another leading player in this field who have been adding sensors to many of their products to improve efficiency, even as they create the next generation platform for industrial IoT. The list doesn’t end there. In fact, almost every major industrial group — from Exxon, to Siemens, to Hitachi, to IBM and many others — have invested significant resources to understanding and applying this new technology.
On the consumer side, IoT promises many new product categories that can improve our lives, as well as adding exciting new capabilities to existing devices. Medical or wellness devices are a major sub-category here. From fitness trackers, to glucose-level monitors, to automatic drug-dispensers, IoT brings the promise of a healthier lifestyle and greater convenience, even while assuring safety by connecting patients to caregivers.
Home automation and car automation, are the other two important sub-categories within consumer IoT. Devices such as the Amazon Echo, the Phillips Hue and the Belkin WeMo fit in here. There are also many companies and solution providers providing end-to-end solutions in the IoT space.
Technology companies everywhere are gearing up for the IoT wave. Many ambitious start-ups see it a fantastic growth area in which they can make a difference by bringing to market truly innovative and differentiated products. According to research firm Ovum, VCs have invested a total of over $30B in IoT related start-ups in the last 4 years. Big technology companies also see the IoT as a major disruptive force on the horizon and want to get ahead of the curve, and their investment is likely to dwarf that of the start-ups.
IoT is gaining traction both in the consumer and industrial markets and is expected to be the most significant technological and business trend in the coming decade. We are at the threshold of a technological revolution that will drastically change how we interact with the devices around us. Self-driving cars and connected appliances are only the beginning of this wave, and with IoT at the centre of all this, we can truly say that the future is here.
At his company Klar Systems, where he is also the Director, Harikrishna designs and builds cool new gadgets, applications and platforms for the IoT era. He is also the co-creator of our Internet of Things learning path.