Discussion of the IoT must stratify

-August 18, 2016

Love it or hate it, the term "Internet of Things (IoT)" has taken hold. But the technology trend behind the term has grown beyond the point that a single term can encompass everything. It's time for discussions of this technology trend to find new terminology and stratify into more meaningful regimes.

Part of the problem with the term IoT is the lack of a clear definition. Ask a variety of people in the industry what constitutes an IoT device and you'll get at least as many answers as the number of people you ask. Most would agree, however, that an IoT device has some key characteristics. These include:

  • Connectivity (usually, but not always, wireless) that ultimately reaches to public or private cloud services
  • The ability to send and/or receive data and/or commands through its connection
  • A high degree of autonomy in its routine operation, i.e., little or no human interaction is needed beyond setup and configuration

Other characteristics that are frequently, but not always, mentioned include battery powered operation, sensors, WiFi, Bluetooth, mobile apps, and analytics. However, these are not universally seen as necessary for something to be part of the IoT.

This fuzzy definition highlights a second part of the problem with the term IoT. There are virtually endless applications in which a device possessing the three key characteristics might be useful. From a single doorbell to an entire city infrastructure, IoT devices have a potential home. That's a lot of territory to encompass with a single term.

To be sure, as a term IoT has considerable value. By virtue of its simultaneous breadth and ambiguity, the term allows almost unfettered thinking about what can be achieved by applying the underlying technologies. This freedom of thought has stimulated thousands of new products and is generating ever more ideas with the potential to profoundly transform both business and private life.

Equally important, the term IoT has given a convenient umbrella under which the discussion of serious issues can occur. Challenges such as privacy, security, safety, interoperability, and long-term maintenance, among many others, arise with the advent of widespread autonomy and connectivity in devices and systems. The Internet of Things is a convenient term for lumping everything together when pursuing common answers to shared challenges.

But the term has become too convenient, and too popular. Almost everything with connectivity is being heralded as an IoT device, and almost anything that helps developers add connectivity to a design is touted as supporting IoT development. At the same time, there is a growing perception that IoT refers principally to such things as building maintenance and consumer devices.

Intel's Joule kit brings vision to the IoT

(Image courtesy Intel)

Take the introduction of the Intel Joule at the Intel Developer Forum earlier this week. This dev kit features a 64-bit quad core processor running at 1.7 GHz with 4G of RAM and 16G of program memory. The kit also provides support for cameras that provide 3D capability. And it has both Bluetooth and WiFi.

Calling this a "platform for driving IoT innovation," as Intel does, can seem like a bit of a stretch, though. So far, at least, IoT platforms and products that have hit the market use far fewer resources. And much of the discussion about IoT platform needs has centered on further lowering of power and software footprints, not increased performance. In this "smaller is better" environment, a powerhouse like the Joule seems wildly out of place.

Yet there is a clear market for such a device. Vision-based autonomous robots, both consumer and industrial, could use this kind of power, as can systems for virtual or augmented reality. And if these systems link to the Internet for command, control, or data transfer, they can be considered to be IoT devices.

Still, it is a stretch to lump an autonomous, vision-guided robotic system with a collar that reports your pet's activity and whereabouts all together under the single term Internet of Things. Perhaps, then, it is time for the term to stratify into markets, or at least performance layers. The first step has already been taken, with the coining of Industrial Internet of Things as a term to distinguish between industrial and consumer uses of the technology. But more might be needed.

When discussing the common issues of smart, connected devices, IoT is a useful umbrella term. When discussing a product's relevance to a developer, however, IoT has become too broad. And consequently, overused. It's time to start talking about the various markets separately.

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