Why the 'Internet of Things' may never happen

It's also a lousy name for a great idea that is doomed from the start. Here's why.

Research firm Gartner says the "Internet of Things" will have 26 billion connected devices by 2020.

Maybe. But connected to what? And how? Here's what you need to know about the "Internet of Things" phenomenon.

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There will be no 'Internet of Things'

The label "Internet of Things" is used to describe Internet-connected devices that communicate without human involvement.

For example, as you read this article, you're using the regular Internet. You're a human being who is communicating with another human being (Yours Truly), and this communication is facilitated by many other human beings (editors, web designers, engineers, etc.). Like Soylent Green, the Internet is made out of people -- and computers whose main purpose is to help people use the Internet.

The "Internet of Things" is different mainly in that it's not made out of people.

Let's imagine a scenario 10 years into the future when the "Internet of Things" is supposed to be established. You come home with a hypothetical "smart toaster," which connects to the Internet. You plug it into a kitchen outlet. The toaster boots up, finds the home Wi-Fi network and sends out a query to all the other smart devices registered to you. Your alarm clock, smart toothbrush, TV, smartphones, tablets, PCs, smart glasses, smart smoke detector, home automation base station, smart clothes, smart fridge, smart washer and dryer and smart kitty litter box each in turn introduces itself to the toaster, telling its unique identifiers and what they're capable of doing. The toaster responds in kind. In the future, the toaster can send and receive instructions from other devices.

For example, you have friends over for breakfast and make several slices of toast. There's a lot of heat and a little smoke, and your smart smoke detector suspects a fire. So it sends out a message to the other devices saying, in effect, "is anyone creating heat and smoke?" The toaster can respond the equivalent of: "Yeah, it's me. No fire here and nothing to be alarmed about." So the smoke alarm doesn't sound.

"Things" are connecting to each other and interoperating without human involvement. That's one consumery example of the "Internet of Things." (There will be industrial and other applications on a massive scale.)

The "Internet of Things" is a bad name because "things" don't have their own Internet. They use the regular Internet. There is no separate "Internet of Things."

"Things of the Internet" would be closer. And "things that interact with other things without human involvement" would be even more accurate.

Another reason why the "Internet of Things" is a bad name is that the devices can make these connections without using the Internet. Some can connect peer-to-peer, or over a local network, without going online. The ability to connect to the Internet is not a necessary criterion for inclusion in the "Internet of Things" category.

Oh, and one more (fatal) problem

There's one more problem with the label "Internet of Things" -- it implies Internet-like compatibility and universality of communication standards that may never happen.

The basic standards for the Internet were developed before there were powerful companies with a vested interest in excluding competitors from markets. By the time the big Internet companies were rich enough to throw billions of dollars around to get their way, the standards, such as TCP/IP and others that make the Internet universal, were already well established.

This is not the case for the Internet of Things. The phenomenon is arising in an industrial environment of powerful companies that each want an unlevel playing field in their favor, or that have strong and mutually exclusive ideas about how the industry should work.

Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée calls it the "basket of remotes" problem.

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    148 days ago

    Wow, this is a technology site right? Sorry to be snarky but to incorrectly quote Ian Malcolm, "Life (Technology in this case) finds a way"
    I wont comment on the first page of this article its not useful.

    But as for the rest, you speak as if the internet we have now just suddenly appeared. That's not how it happened...
    There were tons of different protocols, cable types and "standards" among other things before we got the imperfect but functioning internet we have today. Just because a new technology faces hurdles doesn't mean you throw your hands up and walk away.

    By your argument, no one should have bought a smartphone a few years ago because they weren't perfect when they came out and companies would have each tried to make their own phone, bettering their models as time advanced, introducing new features, bringing down prices... Never mind. I don't understand your logic.

    Give the IoT a chance to exist in the consumer world. People will vote with their wallets.

    226 days ago

    Dear computerworld, please ask a human read my comment from a month ago and explain exactly why it was unapproved. Stop using algorithms to determine quality of content, they fail miserably.

    238 days ago

    Would be great if the other, first, would have understood the idea of IoT and not just talk about spontaneous (wireless) networking and, second, would have followed standardization efforts in this direction during the last ten years.

    247 days ago

    Chill Mike! Name a technology that did not start the same way as "Internet of Things." First come the ideas introduced by start ups or big players. Then comes consolidation, users vote with their purchases, then a standard. This should be no different. If the Internet of Things brings value, the users will come and a standard will emerge. No biggie - has happened hundreds of times already. Anybody remember the data comm wars? SNA? Token Ring?

    253 days ago

    What will the "Internet of Things" do after the apocalypse?


    253 days ago

    Before the time USB 2.0 was cemented in everyone's home, there were a fraction of the devices out there with those jacks (and most were the bare basics of devices). Since it became the standard, a whole new world opened up with a broadened ecosystem of devices.

    The same can be said for PDAs. All great ideas, but there was such little development in software and external uses for the devices, they all suffered from isolation. People predicted they could do far more universal things with these devices and they just died out with a fizzle. With the iPhone and then Android setting standards with app stores, once again, another broadened ecosystem started thriving with both software and hardware alike.

    This "Internet of Things" probably will take off, but after a few models are tried out, grow stagnant, and die...probably before a new standard takes hold and thrives, similar to the above technologies. The term will probably feel like reading an article in the 70s speculating on the tech field 25 years from then, and replaced with something as easy to swallow as a casual user's smartphone* app (*another term that feels worn out).

    Incoherent ramblings courtesy of sleep deficit, sorry in advance.

    254 days ago

    Sounds like the personal computer before IBM established a standard. If you want it to succeed, just pick the biggest player and support their open standard.

    254 days ago

    Internet of things sounds like a nightmare. Everything would be insecure, slow and unreliable. Sounds great, eh?
    Moronic concept.

    254 days ago

    Everything seems like a stupid idea. Until it works, and someone is making millions from it.

    And it's gonna happen.

    Why don't you just give up on this game of negativity.

    254 days ago

    I've always been skeptical of the Internet of Things, but more from the perspective of utility. I don't see the advantage of having the toaster tell the smoke detector that it's at fault for the smoke. What if you're making toast and you simultaneously knock over a candle that catches the drapes on fire and the stupid smoke detector doesn't go off because the toaster has taken responsibility for the smoke? That would be great, wouldn't it?
    When I envision the Internet of Things, I think it's far more likely that we're really talking about intercommunication within a product line by a single manufacturer (or by 3rd party manufacturers who are using published standards). i.e. you turn on the DVD player and hit play and the TV it's connected to gets a little message indicating that it ought to switch sources. That sort of connectedness is already achieved, to a degree, using things like Toslink, etc., but a more universal communication medium, like the Internet/Wi-Fi, could make for a simpler setup that requires nothing more than network proximity.
    The other connected appliance use case that strikes me as well worth pursuing is one where appliances self-monitor for failing components, etc., and either email you to tell that something needs looking after or maybe call home to LG or Samsung or whoever so that they can ask you about setting up a service call to fix the issue before all the dairy in the fridge starts to go bad. That's the sort of connectedness that I think would be pretty useful.

    254 days ago

    Except that Google buying Nest means they now have the likely most ubiquitous platform to start proliferating more and more smart-home devices until a single company owns the "internet of things" market (I predict wi-fi RBG light bulbs are next, followed by smart audio/tv equipment and then maybe electronic door locks).

    Then, game over for everyone else until Google plays nice by releasing their API so other people can abide by their particular protocol.

    254 days ago

    Come now! The "Internet of Things" is not a doomed concept. The vision described here, however, is. No, we'll get our "Internet of Things", but more realistically our toaster will display a bread ad before we're allowed to make toast suggesting to us we should get out of our jammies quickly, run down to the local grocer and buy a specific loaf so it (the toaster) can make us the most fantastic piece of toast we've ever had. Then as we're pressing down the lever it'll read our finger print to identify us, report that to a number of data warehouses for a plethora of governmental security agencies so they'll know down to the square meter where we are at all times.

    If the past is the best predictor of the future, our smart appliances will not serve our needs and interests as has been envisioned in the past 20 years but deluge us with adverts before we can use them and tattle on us our every move, even our beds and make living day to day a nightmarish existence not even Orwell could have dreamed.

    254 days ago

    I would hope that this "Internet of Things" is a doomed concept, because the idea of a bunch of otherwise inanimate objects behaving and making "decisions" on what actions to perform and when to perform them independent of my input sounds like a recipe straight out of a tech horror story. I don't want to be that guy who yells "Skynet", but if the "Internet of Things" ever does really happen, then I feel like a Skynet-like entity wouldn't be far off.

    255 days ago

    Foolish article. There are two key enabling technologies that are to the digital future what blood is to human life: Internet Protocols (IP) and Linux for super scale server farms and even more so for the vast majority of end nodes.

    With these two key technologies anything can connect to anything. The distinction between local, remote and global is immaterial. The author failed to note that is the very essence of Internet Protocols. Fast wired Ethernet and Wifi are the way to do it many situations, including home systems. X-Gen technologies will continue to improve the capacity of cellular networks. But they will all be fundamentally IP based.

    Look at Google's investments in Android, Chrome OS, and more recently Nest - all Linux based embedded systems. Windows and iOS are the Novell of the early 21st century, they think they have won but in reality they have already lost, and Linux is the TCP-IP like figure backed by much greater trends driven by the benefits of ever larger connectivity. Apple and Microsoft are playing the role of IBM and DEC about to be swept away by broader trends than they can handle, or as Gates would say "they are so screwed and they don't even see it".

    IP and fast wired Ethernet/WIFI enable the basic communication in the home between devices and eliminate the need for any other form of information transfer except in very specialized areas such as some uses of Bluetooth and near-field: HDMI, Infrared, endless proprietary standards, and the like are toast.

    The Linux provides the basic software in nearly every embedded device which is currently on the market and will power the huge wave yet to come: routers, NAS, printers, GPS, majority of cell phones and tablets (Android), etc. Linux, already important in mega-scale cloud data centers where it rules the roost, is arguable the single most important piece of software on the planet for its role powering embedded devices that are and will be the heart of the Internet of Everything. Traffic lights will not be running XP, Window 7/8/9, MacOS, or iOS, they will be running Linux and so will the myriad of devices that connect or collectively interact with them, including the dozens in your car.

    211 days ago

    Apple/Microsoft buried IBM and DEC
    Linux is in the process of burying Apple and Microsoft
    Don't you think something else will come along and bury Linux?
    Why do you automatically assume that Linux is the answer for everything and that there isn't already a product out there or currently under development that will supplant Linux as your favorite?

    211 days ago

    That analysis mixes the burying of business models with technology displacement.

    Linux is not the automatic answer for everything. Clearly it failed to take over the desktop. But it does very well on Servers and embedded devices. The question at hand is who wins in the battle to be the micro-kernel next to the bare metal for embedded systems. Sure the Chinese may pop something out of a hat, but I place my $5 bet on the Linux ecosystem. My guess so will the Chinese, they have made noise about a "native" OS for years and look how Linux just soldiers on. Nobody in this country will touch it and the Indians are too far back in manufacturing. So change may come but only if the entire computing paradigm shifts to a non-Von Neuman architecture and that dream has been around for 70 years. It will happen one day, but not today or the near future. Ask yourself who or what has the power and the motive to topple the Linux community?

    255 days ago

    my mother came from the ice box generation while i am from the electric toaster (non digital) generation. my toaster isn't "smart" but reliably does what it is designed to do. so now, if everything is digital, are the electronics inside worth what must be additional costs to manufacture? will people still be able to buy dumb toasters, refrigerators, and other appliances?

    255 days ago

    So the name is bad?

    I guess that's why we don't have manholes then...

    255 days ago

    Our so called smart TV loses settings/channels and often takes more than a second just change channels. I'm about to throw our basket of remotes at it.

    255 days ago

    Yeah there will definitely be competition between companies for that market, like everything. But once companies start developing products with interfaces I think that it wont take long for companies and open source projects to get the ball rolling. We are all waiting for the IOT and once we have something substantial to work with then the communities will help to normalize the code. Oh yeah it will also be implemented in JavaScript.....lol

    255 days ago

    I will discuss Internet of Things from the point of view of Apple. Why? Because they have the resources to make it happen.

    Today, Internet of Things is a minefield and anyone who jumps into it without thinking it through and have right solutions at the right time will be blown away.

    I will give an analogy. Microsoft had tablets almost half a decade before Apple and Archos, a small player, had them too. Yes, it was not a minefield but it was not a right product at the right time and tablets of both were blown away.

    Apple came up with iPad, which was simple and had great battery life and it was a huge success.

    Google buys and Apple builds. Buying Nest was natural for Google but was unnatural for Apple because the tag was too big and would have sent a wrong message to employees. Go, resign and be successful, auction your company and we will buy you back.

    It is time now for Apple to build. Google has dived 'head first' into Internet of Things and it remains to be seen how much they will succeed.

    Long term, Internet of Things is inevitable. Wearables and Internet of things has the capacity to get Apple to become a trillion dollar company and REMAIN THERE.

    255 days ago

    Nope. Apple has never done anything original, they are just polishers so to speak. Digital music players, cell phones, and tablets were low hanging fruit they tweaked and successfully delivered. Their vertical integration virtually assures they won't be players who must dominate the ease of interconnectivity, rather than make it as proprietary as possible. Apple has no inherit advantage and a business model as cumbersome as IBM's back in the day of the advent of low cost mass produced processors. Short Apple and Microsoft over the next five years and you can't loose, they are the IBM and DEC of modern times.

    256 days ago

    Subtle movie references :) Soylent, basket. More? Anyone?

    256 days ago

    There might be no need for such a "registry". There are already some startups that try to bring multiple standards under one roof and this movement will grow. The winner will have the best UX and the best coverage, or may be also the best API. Nothing prevents to have several "umbrellas" on the market at the same time, let users decide.

    256 days ago

    I am not sure and the article didn't explain the reason why we need a registry.

    256 days ago

    "Per device" scheme is just not feasible, no go. "Per device" meaning "per model" when a manufacturer would submit their device to the registry and millions of devices of that model are used worldwide and they only pay 5 bucks per year - this would work.

    255 days ago

    Registries are nonsense. This bad idea has been proposed many times. Remember all the "web services registry" rhetoric? The industry(s) will feel the way through with application level protocols on top of Internet Protocol (IP). It is a working, and more importantly, an adapting environment that adjusts well to market conditions - an absolutely killer combination.

    IP based app protocols have been blasting everything before them for the last twenty years including the very Internet itself and the World Wide Web on top of that. Anyone care for Gopher or SNA? By the way, the "Internet" in Internet Protocol really is truth in advertising: it does not mean the Internet as we know the public infrastructure today, it long pre-dates that. It means any network can communicate with any other network. "The Internet" or even "the Web" are just examples of that.

    256 days ago

    If the toaster is smart enough to reply "no problem" to the smoke detector, why isn't it smart enough not to burn the toast in the first place?

    255 days ago

    Maybe the operator likes burnt toast.

    256 days ago

    Totally agree with this. A standards body needs to come up with a way to get these devices to talk.

    That being said, I still find that my dumb refrigerator perfectly suits my needs, and see no reason for it to talk to my crockpot.

    Besides, every time those two get together they are trouble and cause me nothing but problems.

    256 days ago

    It would be better if the devices used open source firmware. Then at least it would be possible to make them comply with standards, keep them compatible, and it would, to an extent, negate the security issues.

    255 days ago

    First all 100% of them will. Every single one will run embedded Linux. Second they will use open source IP stacks. They will also use common tools like Busybox. Your router already does, so does your NAS, so do your printers, likely so do your phones and tablets if you run the dominate Android package from Google (or Chrome OS or a Nest device). Depend upon application need, and especially in response to market demand as actually determined by successful sales, various old and new application level protocols will unite these devices as needed. Although I am not a "free market" ideologue, this is one of the few areas where it really does work best.

    Sadly it does not negate the security issue at all. That will remain the needle in the apple. I have no great optimism around solving that problem easily. IP technologies are not inherently security oriented and worse yet the state of the art in software development and tools will leave vulnerabilities for years to come.

    255 days ago

    It does negate the security issue to some extent. Using routers as an example, most vendors do not release security patches for older hardware. If the source code is made available, then users can upgrade the software themselves, or use a non-stock firmware such as openWRT.

    255 days ago

    It also allows attackers the luxury of examining the source in detail to analyze and test effective attack strategies. Having bricked the odd router, I can also attest that is such a turkey shoot that I close my eyes and try not to even consider the security implications of what I may be doing. Same thing about rooting my phone. I damn well know security is going backwards but I do it for other reasons.

    211 days ago

    A significant percentage of people don't even update the operating systems on their computers, and many fewer update the applications on those computers. When was the last time someone told you they just updated the firmware on their printer?
    Relying on end users to perform updates on their toasters, smoke detectors, refrigerators, stoves, irons, TVs, etc, etc, etc is an exercise in futility. All of the devices must be able to update themselves automatically, without user interaction. Security will be a huge problem if the 'Internet of Things' truly takes off. Imagine the botnets that would be created. People would be getting spam from a housewives vibrator in Portugal, phishing attacks would originate from a hair dryer in Nova Scotia, DDoS attacks would come from hoards of vacuum cleaners in Europe.

    254 days ago

    Your answer ignores the fact that Microsoft will enter into agreements with Whirlpool or GE or whomever so that those companies' products won't have Linux. They'll be running "Microsoft Windows 9.1 for Kitchen" and none of this will be compatible. It'll be the same stupid rat's nest it is now.

    254 days ago

    Nobody knows the future for sure, but I don't think it will go the way you predict. Microsoft has vanishing credibility just like IBM before it. It cannot dictate in that market place or many new ones. Microsoft has taken runs at home environments more than once and failed as badly as they did at tablets. Why would the device manufacturers want to align with a declining force? Apple might be more attractive, but Apple has only a corner of a related market and even there Apple's market share is rapidly shrinking in relative size. Andriod would at this time be more likely but why bother when basic Linux is enough in many cases. More importantly, why would a hardware manufacturer want to incur licenses and control by Microsoft (or Apple). The software in a refrigerator at this stage takes relatively little effort if you use off the shelf open source systems, in particular stripped Linux kernels. Nobody is going to produce a viable alternative to that in the near future, certainly not .Net.

    254 days ago

    I'm with you on this, believe me. But let's ask Ford why they stuff Microsoft's awful software in their cars. I'm sure there are other examples.

    211 days ago

    Microsoft developed a micro kernel years ago that could work well.

    Wri­tten from scratch in a managed code environment. It would be much more secure than anything currently on the market. I would guess the reason they haven't released it, is because it wouldn't be backwards compatible with their current software, and the wouldn't be much in the way of new applications available. Neither would be much of a problem in the 'Internet of Things' environment since everything would be getting a fresh start.

    256 days ago

    I think you are being a bit pessimistic,

    Plus then the real power of the internet of things will be in places like hospitals and retail and possibly the military and there will be commercial pressures to use open standards and making sure devices can all seamlessly be link together. You will have car companies and other that work around the likes of Google and Apple to make sure there cars function with mobiles run by both.

    We will muddle through for a few years, with various standards and ideas on how to make the internet of things work and then we will muddle through and figure out how to get those various standards to work together. An then I expect we will get efforts to consolidate standards.

    255 days ago

    Actually IP protocols have always been very pragmatic that way. It is how they triumphed over proprietary protocols and competing internal standards (remember OSI, GOSSIP, and X-400? Even if not, I rest my case as proven). It will continue to happen because what you outlined is the most effective way to adapt to market conditions such as they are, not as some committee or marketing group thinks they should be.

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