Saturday, November 16, 2013

#IoT in my words

Marketers turned a few too many times around on their chair. The whole Internet of Things (#IoTmarketing machine has spun out of control. So much that they don't even know any more what they really mean. You see article after article, blog post after blog post, about the differences between the Internet of Things, Machine-to-Machine (M2M), (GE's) Industrial Internet, (Cisco's) Internet of Everything, and I am sure I am forgetting a few new terms. They all have the obligatory image of a car, a cell phone, a watch, a fridge, a sprinkler on a cloud background. The articles start with IoT definitions, similar to what I used to read in an encyclopedia. Then there is "the comparison table", which will demystify any confusion between the terms. Typically it is only the starting point for endless discussions about features, protocols, and applications. My simple view on the Internet of Things will have no such comparison table, but I am keeping a cloud picture.

The Internet started by connecting computers, and allowing for data exchange and email. The real Internet came later and was about a new class of applications which hadn't been envisioned before: Websites, e-Commerce, online banking, online training, etc.

Similarly the Internet of Things starts of by connecting all kinds of devices, mostly via low-power radio. Companies don't really know yet what type of applications these will spawn. A recent announcement by Samsung illustrates the point. The best application of their connected TV is the TV adjusting the thermostat lower when watching a movie about the Artic. You also have the visionary thoughts of cars talking to each other to recommend a great taqueria in the neighborhood. Really?

Terminology and marketing speak aside, the Internet of Things boils down to two key points:

1. IoT is about hooking things up and feeding the Big Data monster

Most of the focus today is about hooking up all kinds of devices. It is a wet dream for the hardware engineers of a decade ago. Hardware projects are sexy again. Take a look at the various Kickstarter projects involving new low-power connected devices. The key challenge is indeed about keeping a small footprint, consuming as little power as possible and being able to communicate in intermittent network environments. And of course this all has to happen in a secure manner.

Although some devices will be communicating with each other, for the majority of devices it is all about feeding the big bad analytics engine in the cloud. Google, Apple, Amazon, GE's Predix, are all salivating about the opportunity to crunch and analyze your habits. Initial applications focus on visualizing the data and creating a historical picture. The various biometrics wristbands are a great example. Wait until the next set of applications will harvest data across devices or databases.

2. IoT is about building Smart(er) Systems

A lesser focus in the technology press is about how connecting more devices, systems and subsystems are creating a new set of intelligent systems. Your cars already have tens and tens of monitoring and CPU devices. A new class of electric and autonomous vehicles show how a new intelligent systems and applications are just around the corner. For many system engineers, this turns the volume up to 11. Indeed, it is challenging how the implement a control loops for these devices. It is more challenging to share data to many more consumers when real-time performance matters.

It is not just about the Jetson's mobile. Smarter systems also include systems such as an interconnected battleground with drones and soldiers with tablets, or a hospital where the infusion pumps, heart rate monitor, etCO2 monitor all talk to each other and provide the nurses station with a simplified view of the health of the patient.

Regardless of whether it is about feeding the big data monster or making smarter systems hum, it is great time to be working on the hardware, protocols or data crunching or integrating systems of the Internet of Things.

I may have this all wrong.  IoT may, as Disney's internship posting points out, actually refer to the Internet of Toys. Big Toys.

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