As Objects Go Online

The Promise (and Pitfalls) of the Internet of Things

A model presents a Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch at the IFA consumer electronics fair in Berlin, September 4, 2013.
A model presents a Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch at the IFA consumer electronics fair in Berlin, September 4, 2013. (Fabrizio Bensch / Courtesy Reuters)

Since 1969, when the first bit of data was transmitted over what would come to be known as the Internet, that global network has evolved from linking mainframe computers to connecting personal computers and now mobile devices. By 2010, the number of computers on the Internet had surpassed the number of people on earth.

Yet that impressive growth is about to be overshadowed as the things around us start going online as well, part of what is called “the Internet of Things.” Thanks to advances in circuits and software, it is now possible to make a Web server that fits on (or in) a fingertip for $1. When embedded in everyday objects, these small computers can send and receive information via the Internet so that a coffeemaker can turn on when a person gets out of bed and turn off when a cup is loaded into a dishwasher, a stoplight can communicate with roads to route cars around traffic, a building can operate more efficiently by knowing where people are and what they’re doing, and even the health of the whole planet can be monitored in real time by aggregating the data from all such devices.

Linking the digital and physical worlds in these ways will have profound implications for both. But this future won’t be realized unless the Internet of Things learns from the history of the Internet. The open standards and decentralized design of the Internet won out over competing proprietary systems and centralized control by offering fewer obstacles to innovation and growth. This battle has resurfaced with the proliferation of conflicting visions of how devices should communicate. The challenge is primarily organizational, rather then technological, a contest between command-and-control technology and distributed solutions. The Internet of Things demands the latter, and openness will eventually triumph.

THE CONNECTED LIFE

The Internet of Things is not just science fiction; it has already arrived. Some of the things currently networked together send data over the public Internet, and some communicate over secure private networks, but all share common protocols that allow them to interoperate to help solve profound problems.

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