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The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the hottest IT buzzwords of the moment. Yet the term is actually almost two decades old already. If IoT is not actually a new idea, what is the concept's history? And why is it suddenly trending now? Keep reading for an overview of the history of the Internet of Things, and what makes it a bigger deal today than ever.

Inventing the Internet of Things

Although you probably haven't heard much about IoT until recently, the terminology dates back to 1999. Kevin Ashton, co-founder of MIT's Auto-ID Center, is credited by most sources with coining the phrase "Internet of Things." (The acronym, IoT, appears to be a considerably later innovation; Wikipedia did not use the abbreviation until starting in 2009, although it contained an entry for Internet of Things since July 2007.) Once introduced, the term quickly entered widespread use, as this Google Ngram shows. (The result there suggesting that the term was used once in 1979 is an anomaly apparently based on erroneous metadata; the publication in question actually appeared later than Google thinks.)

The history of the phrase is significant because it shows that, although the concept of IoT may only have reached the masses in the last few years, it had a wide following among experts that stretches back to the early 2000s.

Evolving Concepts

Also interesting is the fact that Ashton's idea of IoT focused on using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to connect devices together. That was similar to but significantly different from today's IoT, which relies primarily on IP networking to let devices exchange a broad range of information. RFID tagging allows much more limited functionality.

Of course, Ashton's concept of an RFID-based IoT was not surprising at the time. In 1999 wireless networking as we know it today was still in its infancy, and cellular networks had not yet switched to a fully IP-based configuration. Under those conditions, it would have been much harder to conceive of an IoT in which all devices had unique IP addresses. (Plus, in the absence of IPv6, there weren't enough IP addresses to go around if all devices joined the Internet.) Because RFID would not have required IP addresses or actual direct Internet connectivity for each device, it would have seemed like a much cheaper and more feasible solution.

Building the IoT

In the event, device manufacturers put little stock in an RFID-based IoT. Instead, by June 2000, the world's first Internet-connected refrigerator, the LG Internet Digital DIOS, had appeared featuring a LAN port for IP connectivity. (The fridge had been under development since 1997, showing that the idea if not the name for IoT existed well before Ashton introduced the term in 1999.)

The concept expanded and saw more real-world implementation as the 2000s continued. In 2008 the IPSO Alliance formed as a collaboration of industry partners interested in promoting connected devices. That was a sign that big businesses, not just entrepreneurs and researchers, were growing interested in implementing IoT in production environments.