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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.
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.
Today's IoT: Breaking with the Past, and the Importance of the Cloud
But it has only been in recent years that IoT has really become a reality on a massive scale. The IoT is no longer just about a handful of high-end Internet-connected appliances. Now, it's common for all types of devices, from TVs to thermostats to cars, to connect to the Internet.
What has changed since the 2000s to make this all possible? There are several key factors. They include the expansion of networking capabilities, the introduction of large-scale data analytics tools (which make it easier to manage and interpret data from IoT devices) and the creation of new standards, such as the Allseen Alliance's AllJoyn, which make it simpler for IoT hardware and software from different vendors to interact.
Perhaps more than anything else, however, the growth of the cloud has played a crucial role in making modern IoT possible. That's because the cloud provides a low-cost, always-on place for storing information and crunching numbers. Cheap, highly available cloud infrastructure makes it easy to offload storage and compute tasks from IoT devices to cloud servers. In turn, IoT devices can be cheaper, leaner and meaner.
Thanks to the cloud, your smart thermostat doesn't have to do much beyond upload some very basic data to your utility company's cloud, and download instructions you send it through the cloud for managing your home's temperature. It doesn't have to store the data itself. It does not even have to have a local management interface (although most thermostats do) if the manufacturer doesn't want. You can control the device solely through the cloud -- provided, of course, it has Internet connectivity.
Things were not so easy when LG was building an IoT refrigerator a decade ago. Then, the company could not count on an always-on, hugely scalable cloud to help manage the device. Instead, the fridge had to act more like a traditional computer.
Remaining IoT Challenges
For all the challenges that the cloud and other advances have helped to solve for IoT vendors, issues remain. One is a lack of universal standards. The AllJoyn framework is only one IoT standards framework; competing solutions exist, and without consensus standards are not very useful.
Another challenge is lack of infinite bandwidth and networking infrastructure. The more devices you place on the network, the more traffic your network pipes have to handle, and the more connections your switches have to manage. It's possible to expand network infrastructure, and that is what service providers are doing all the time. But it's a slow and costly process. In the absence of faster ways of expanding the network's capacity, this will remain a limiting factor for IoT's rate of growth.
Power is a problem, too. Since part of the advantage of IoT is the ability to manage a large number of devices spread over a wide area without building them into traditional infrastructure, being able to untether IoT hardware from a permanent power source is a requirement for realizing IoT's full potential. But the technology for doing that is not yet here. It's on its way, but it will take time before batteries in IoT devices can last for years, or local solar cells suffice to power a device indefinitely.
Last but certainly not least, security and privacy remain huge issues for IoT. IoT devices introduce a whole new degree of online privacy concerns for consumers. That's because these devices not only collect personal information like users' names and telephone numbers, but can also monitor when you are in your house or what you eat for lunch. Following the never-ending string of disclosures about major data breaches, consumers are wary of placing too much personal data in public or private clouds, with good reason. IoT vendors will need to work through these security issues before IoT devices reach their full potential.