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What is the internet of things?

The term “Internet of Things” (IoT) has been in use for over a decade and interest and hype are now reaching fever pitch with new devices becoming available all the time. However for many, it is still unclear exactly what IoT means and what its potential benefits might be. In this post I will explain how good platforms and tools for IoT are emerging and how the technology is finally beginning to deliver on its promises.

It is clear that consumers and businesses can benefit from these developments now but this will require some misconceptions to be addressed and an understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

What exactly is the Internet of Things?

The internet started as an interconnected network of computers, but over past decades, more and more things have become connected into this network. Initially these were mainly peripheral devices like printers or storage devices. Then we started seeing ‘computers’ in different forms, from PDAs, to smartphones, and tablets  and before long we were all carrying Internet connected devices. However, the IoT is about more than just computers in different forms, it’s about a network of sensors and everyday objects, anything from lightbulbs to washing machines, that are connected to the internet and that can be controlled and exchange data remotely.

The IoT is emerging in both consumer and industrial contexts

The potential of the IoT for consumers can be seen in smart homes. Whilst smart home technology is some way from becoming mainstream, it is entirely possible to set up a system where you can control everything from lights, heating, TV’s, speakers and even locks, through the internet. If you’ve ever dreamed of a house where the lights turn on and the door unlocks as you approach, with the heating already on because it has learnt when you come home, you can make that a reality today.

In industry, IoT is starting to be used in a variety of ways. Modern supply chains are being transformed through arrays of connected sensors. This means products can be tested throughout the production process and inexpensive proximity chips can easily track items so that their location is always monitored. Similar technologies can be used for remotely monitoring assets in the field, meaning faults can be pre-empted and fixed more quickly without needing to send out engineers unnecessarily. Consumer IoT devices are also becoming more common in industrial settings as the power of mass production means that products such as remote sensors and controllers can be produced relatively inexpensively and repurposed for use in other contexts.

Technology finally delivers on the promise

Mature concepts such as the smart home and industrial uses of IoT are being realised because of the improved capabilities of today’s technology and infrastructure. Miniaturisation and reduced power consumption of powerful microchips means we can now produce tiny, efficient and relatively inexpensive chips and sensors which can connect to increasingly ubiquitous telecommunications networks. This means we can connect virtually any object and put it wherever we want with no additional infrastructure required.

The other side of the story as to why the IoT is now taking off is about the magic that happens behind the scenes. An explosion of connected objects generates huge amounts of data that, in the past, would have demanded new data centre capacity and significant investment in customised software. However, today cloud computing is accessible to everyone from big corporates to tiny start-ups. That means through relatively inexpensive and publicly available tools, anyone can now handle big data with relative ease.

One platform to rule them all?

I often get asked by clients, ‘how do we connect to the Internet of Things?’ Sadly there is not a separate part of the web where devices all magically talk to each other with a common language, not yet at least. There are standards in the works for this kind of fluid communication, but this is some way from becoming mainstream, and could restrict the possibilities of the technology.

Most clients I work with assume there are simple plug-and-play solutions for the IoT. However, the reality is that there will always be many bespoke requirements and I don’t see the arrival of a single unified platform, especially in industry, anytime soon.

For consumer IoT devices some platforms like Apple’s HomeKit and Samsung’s SmartThings are starting to gain traction, but these are mainly around specific smart home applications, rather than the wider spectrum of IoT possibilities.

Solutions that can ease the setup of your IoT solutions do exist, such as products from Google’s and Amazon’s cloud platforms, but these still require bespoke software to pull everything together. This means integration points need thinking through and setting up deliberately, rather than expecting out-of -the-box communication with every IoT service. As always a bit of careful design and planning will go a lot further than a one-size-fits-all solution ever could.

What’s next for the IoT?

Finally, the stars have aligned for the IoT. The technology now exists for us to create smart devices, easily connect them to existing networks and send that data to cloud solutions that can handle the scale of information needed for mainstream deployment. So what are you waiting for? What part of your business, or your daily life could benefit from some smarter systems and better connectivity?

At PA Consulting Group, we specialise in the IoT and can demonstrate our vast experience delivering digital solutions to clients via our IoT page.

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