Introduction to the Internet of Things

You might have heard about the Internet of Things (IoT) before, but what does it actually mean? IoT is a network of electronic devices (referred to as "things"), which contain sensors, software, and other technologies that are connected to the internet in order to exchange data and interact with other devices and people (also called “users”). The concept of "things" includes a large number of possible devices – like smart home sensors and lights, wearable health monitors, security system components, and automated driving-related components – that are all connected to the internet. The vast majority of communication among these devices is sending data and receiving commands. IoT is typically highly automated or augmented with intelligent software. That means only a small amount of human-machine interaction is required, and sometimes none at all.

The promise of IoT is that by making our objects smarter, our life becomes customisable and even more efficient. IoT is able to shape a smarter future in various sectors – like healthcare, transport, agriculture and manufacturing – and to make our daily life more comfortable.

The history of IoT

The concept of IoT was introduced in 1999 by Kevin Ashton. Ashton claimed that the quantity of data would increase so drastically that humanity would need the help of machines to be able to handle and use large datasets wisely. Ten years later he also stated that with the data collected by IoT devices,

”...we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.” (Ashton 2009).

His vision was that IoT would be able to change the world in the same way as the internet did. And his prediction became a reality. Around 2003, there were approximately 500 million connected devices. In 2010, there were 12.5 billion. Cisco’s research predicted that there would be 25 billion connected gadgets worldwide in 2015, and approximately 50 billion in 2020 (Cisco 2011), which is the same as a prediction from 2018 (Davis 2018).

This trend shows that there has been significant and swift growth in the number of connected devices, and many professionals agree that this growth won't stop. In the future, more and more gadgets will be connected, and their functionality will also expand.

This is why it's critical to pay attention to these changes because they can – and probably will – have a huge impact on workers, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and on our personal lives as well.

A smart coffee machine and a tablet displaying its functions
A smart coffee machine and a tablet displaying its functions

The smart coffee machine

Before diving into the details, let's start with a simple example to describe IoT. You can connect your mobile device (such as a smartphone or tablet, or even your smartwatch) to a Wi-Fi-enabled smart coffee machine with the help of an application. By establishing a connection between the two devices, they are now able to communicate with each other. The communication goes both ways: the coffee machine can send notifications to your device (such as when the water reservoir is empty), and your device can also send commands to the coffee maker (to start making coffee at a scheduled time or to have coffee ready at a scheduled time). In this process, the IoT user is the integrator who sets up the devices, establishes the connection with the help of a downloaded application, and makes decisions based on their habits and tastes.

Increasing automation

Let's suppose that a new version of the application is released, which includes some automation that can be turned on and off. With the automation turned on, the application monitors when the user wakes up, for example by waiting for the first interaction with the smartphone or tablet or for when the phone is unplugged from the charger. Whenever the "wake up" signal is triggered, the coffee machine turns on and makes coffee. The automation can be further enhanced by monitoring sleep time (the time passed between the last interaction yesterday and the first interaction today) and setting the strength of the coffee accordingly.

Using data

In addition to data collected from the user, data collected by the coffee machine is also usable for automation. After setting the initial amount of coffee bought by the user, the machine can measure and monitor how much is left, day by day. By considering daily coffee consumption, a prediction can be made of when the user will run out of coffee beans. When the prediction triggers an 'alarm', the coffee machine sends a notification to the user's smart device to buy coffee when the user goes shopping (based on the GPS coordinates of the user and the location data of the supermarket). It is even possible that the coffee machine automatically orders the next bag of coffee on the internet when the prediction triggers an 'alarm'.

IoT from a personal perspective

From a personal perspective, IoT helps our life to become more comfortable, customisable and efficient. Take the smart coffee machine for example – with just a few simple connected "things", a part of our life is automated based on our needs and habits. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the human being is the main actor who sets up the IoT-based system. We are the integrator in the process: we have to specify the needs and select an existing solution, and typically we are (or we control) the data source as well. To build an effective IoT system requires effort, motivation and IT skills. Once the smart IoT solution is built it operates automatically, however, if new gadgets are added, it’s likely that additional manual steps have to be taken. Privacy and security are other challenges of IoT. As more gadgets are connected to the internet, all sharing our preferences and personal data, unauthorised users might attempt to gain access.

IoT from a business perspective

From a business perspective, you can collect data (a huge amount of data in fact) from a business process that has installed IoT devices. In addition to the smart coffee machine example we discussed earlier in this section, we will share more examples for different business scenarios in section 3. Based on the collected data, past events can be analysed and future predictions made. Analysing the data makes it possible to understand the underlying process better and to make smarter decisions. Predictions can help businesses to provide better service for customers, including better quality, increased quantities, better user experience, and improved energy and cost efficiency, to name just a few potential benefits.

IoT devices can form a complex network that gathers critical data. By using smarter software solutions, even small impacts from changes can have a large impact on the business. However, the highly automated world of IoT might cause a negative reaction among employees. As more and more machines are used in the process, professions might be replaced or even vanish. Still, IoT forms a new way of working and it also opens new possibilities. Just imagine: if there are tens or hundreds of billions of IoT devices, these have to be manufactured, maintained and upgraded, and discarded. In addition, the underlying computer network and software solutions have to be designed, developed, operated and continuously upgraded. For that reason, there should be no worries that IoT will take all our jobs.

Next section
II. How does IoT work?