Comment on Internet of Things terminology

11.22, Tuesday 27 Jan 2015

Dan Hon commented: The thing - ha - about the internet-of-things is that it’s a weird descriptor.

from a consumer point of view, for most things, why would it have wifi if it couldn’t be connected, in some way, to the internet? Which is sort of the position that all of this IoT business is a temporary blip and that instead you’ll just be looking for “doorbells” or “lightbulbs” or “locks” and you won’t really get a choice about whether they “come with internet” or not.

I’ll go with that. The internet won’t stay trapped behind glass. – That was a useful encapsulation to explain what we were doing with Berg Cloud.

Of course lightbulbs should be networked. But my hunch is that - with connectivity - we’ll find new products that means that we no longer focus on light bulbs per se. Maybe connectivity will mean that we’ll buy “lighting,” verbs not nouns.

I guess the scale of the difference I mean is like software. Which, when networked, became social. Our global village.

And it won’t necessarily be an “internet” and an “internet of things” but still, just, and only, the internet, at least I hope so, because the whole point of the internet - or at least, just one of the points of the internet is that things can link from one thing to another thing and that’s why the superset - the internet of networks of things - will be the one that wins. Hopefully.

So I have some very rough mental models that I use, now I’m officially exploring the Internet of Things.

  • Words… I use titlecase “Internet of Things,” and fully capitalise “IOT” (not IoT) so it doesn’t look prissy.
  • Internet of Things is an awesome rallying flag. All kinds of technologies, skills, opportunities, adjacencies, and changes are involved. We’re still building and debating it into being. I’m reminded of Web 2.0 and Tim O’Reilly’s 2005 essay, What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software. We don’t talk about Web 2.0 any more, but that’s what the deployment phase of the web was, for almost a decade.
  • It doesn’t feel to me like there is the IOT in the same way there is the Internet. There are IOT technologies and IOT experts and an IOT mindset. But it’s not a single thing. Why? Because technically it’s not fully connected, and I would argue that it doesn’t need to be. And also because it’s like that bit in The Graduate, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. … Plastics. What? Pacemakers or wind turbines? Well, yes. All of the above.

Here’s the working definition I have in my notebook: We see the internet of things wherever a physical thing is connected by some kind of data carrying link to a computer capable of running software.

I’m casting a wide net – we’ve built a lot of infrastructure (train platform signage, building facilities) that we don’t call IOT but it is. Or it’s close to being so. Why is this good?

  • The physical thing is no longer closed. By adding software, features can be added and iterated in response to user needs
  • The computer end of things is easily networked, so things can be monitored and controlled remotely, data aggregated to provide extra intelligence, and the whole system incorporated into other software systems
  • The opportunity space off the Internet of Things is therefore opened up

So given my working definition, I need to refer to two types of connectivity:

  • Connectivity is any kind of wired or radio link between the physical things and… anything else. Another physical thing, in a mesh network. A controlling computer capable of running software, such as an iPod Touch. A server.
  • Backhaul is the specific connectivity that joins the thing to the internet. This doesn’t mean that the thing is routable on the open internet… it might just be networked to other things behind the same corporations firewall.

I can think of lots of things that would benefit from connectivity without backhaul. I’d like to be able to orchestrate the behaviour of all the lightbulbs in my house, for example; remote control from the open internet is a bonus.

Then back to Dan’s original point… and that’s why the superset - the internet of networks of things - will be the one that wins. Hopefully.

Hopefully. Maybe. But where my mental model takes me is to draw analogies with dumb unconnected stuff… my home. And I like that there are doors, that close, and windows that are see-through but with curtains; I can leave the phone off the hook and pull the plug on the wi-fi. There are switch by walls where my hand finds them, and those hidden at the back of the cupboard by the stove. These aren’t just security models – they’re ways of making sense of the stuff I have in my life.

Still I go back the connected lightbulb and it’s eventual value. To discover the it might require building out the whole Internet of Things first… the World Wide Web was already 7 years old by the time launched and so discovered the real value of the medium.

And maybe that’ll require the open internet and all that implies. I hope so too but I think we have to make that case from value, because it’s not necessary.