By Paul Brody
People have been talking and writing about the “Internet of Things” for more than a decade. It’s the idea that at some point billions of electronic devices and sensors will be connected to the Internet in parallel to the hundreds of millions of people who have access to the Net. But, unlike so many of the whiz-bang technologies that are forever predicted but never arrive, such as flying cars and time machines, the Internet of Things is on the verge of becoming a reality.
So, what exactly is bringing the Internet of Things to fruition? A big factor is the plunging cost of connectivity, which is being driven by the emergence of Heterogeneous Networks (often referred to as “HetNets”). HetNets offer a way to increase the density and bandwidth available to mobile devices.
To give you an idea of their potential scale, Free.fr, one of the world’s first HetNets, located in France, has more than 4 million WiFi hotspots connected to the network and enjoys data transfer costs that are probably far below $1 per gigabyte. While the rise of HetNets is driven by insatiable consumer demand for smartphone bandwidth, the biggest impact will be felt when it becomes cost-effective to connect just about anything (cars, washing machines, vending machines, lights etc.) to the Internet. And, anyone who was inLas Vegas earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show knows that this type of ‘uber-connectivity’ is no longer just a pipe dream.
The second major factor driving the Internet of Things is the explosion of low-cost, smart, standardized sensor networks. Consumer hobbyists are leading the way here. Kickstarter, the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects is hosting numerous sensor projects that are designed to enable consumers to rapidly deploy and utilize large numbers of sensors around the home and office.
Raspberry Pi is one of the most popular recent initiatives in this space. The company has created a credit card-sized computer that integrates with physical devices like TVs and keyboards to give users PC functionality, such as spreadsheets and word processing, without having to buy a computer. Designed for hobbyists, it starts at a mere $25.
Another interesting initiative is Sensordrone, a multi-sensor device for smartphones that was recently funded by Kickstarter that gives phones even more capabilities, like connecting to printers. In another development, Nokia pledged to push the envelope in terms of adding new and innovative sensors and geo-location capabilities to their phones.
Finally, all these devices and services are increasingly being stitched together with online services for better integration. A service that I think is very compelling is If This Then That (IFTTT) -an online web service integrator. It allows users to set triggers, such as when new tweets appear or photos are uploaded, and then match them to actions, such as sending an email with that information. Personally, I have more than 24 tasks running on IFTTT. The website is about a year old and until recently it focused purely on online services.
This is relevant to the Internet of Things because in the last few months, IFTTT has added “Channels” that connect to physical devices and it started with a home power management system. The result: integration of physical devices and virtual services across multiple providers for consumers. All of this with point and click simplicity. So, if you forgot to turn off the house lights before leaving, you can simply tweet them off. Similarly, you could control all the devices and gadgets in your house with a smartphone.
I showed this to one enterprise CIO who immediately instructed his staff to sign up and try the service to see how it can be applied in their own company.
When all these things come together, the result will be an Internet of Things that really works for consumers. And, as we have seen lately, where consumers go, enterprises follow.