Defining the Internet of Things – Internet optional

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Throughout 2014, I did a lot of personal and professional work involving the Internet of Things (IoT). Along the way, I found many different definitions and descriptions for the phenomenon; a lot of varying thought-leadership, opinions and academic research. Frustrated by the marketing lines, buzz words and convoluted descriptions, I decided to formalise the idea into an overarching definition that I want to share with you here.

TL;DR

Despite the name, Internet connectivity should be seen as optional when describing the broader movement of the Internet of Things. What we should be exploring is networks of Connected Devices more generally, regardless of whether they are online. Once we have networks of Connected Devices, the IoT is just a subset of those networks that can be accessed over the Internet.

“The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of Connected Devices, which can be accessed through the Internet." -Hadi Michael

A “Connected Device" is any physical object that has some form ofconnectivity AND some form of computational power. The object can optionally have sensors and/or actuators; typically at least one of these exists.

A look at definitions and descriptions that are already out there

I’ll start by looking at some existing definitions, here’s one from Gartner:

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.

There’s a lot in this definition that I can relate to, and it is generally accurate… but it just feels overly complicated. We can do better.

Deloitte have a definition for the IoT, but they have gone too far with the detail. No matter how hard you try to be collectively exhaustive, there is no way you will be able to list every possible use-case:

The Internet of Things concept involves connecting machines, facilities, fleets, networks, and even people to sensors and controls; feeding sensor data into advanced analytics applications and predictive algorithms; automating and improving the maintenance and operation of machines and entire systems; and even enhancing human health.

On second read, that definition is keyword heaven for SEO. Anyway, moving on… My favourite definition comes from Cisco.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects accessed through the Internet.

Short, simple and to the point. I use this definition as my starting point when describing IoT to colleagues and friends. There’s only one problem with it, it neglects to acknowledge a world of connected devices that cannot be accessed through the Internet.

The phenomenon driving the Internet of Things is a lot larger than just Internet enabled devices. It’s machine-to-machine communication, regardless of the communication protocol (Internet or otherwise). It’s devices that are aware of their environment and can report and respond accordingly. The Internet is merely an additional benefit, which realistically will not be reliably and consistently available in many circumstances.

The IoT is merely a side-effect of a much larger movement involving connected devices more broadly.

Now we must define a Connected Device

IoT Definition

A “Connected Device" is any physical object (such as the chair shown in the example above) that has some form of connectivity (it doesn’t matter if it’s Bluetooth, WiFi, Cellular, or even Ethernet – as long as it can connect to a network) AND some form of *computational power *(again, it doesn’t matter if it has just enough power to relay data to the cloud or if it has so much power it can think for itself – as long as it can compute).

The object can optionally have sensors and/or actuators. While it’s typical for at least one of these to exist, neither is essential.

These devices become powerful when they exist in a network and become contextually aware.

Defining the overarching movement behind Internet of Things

If we combine our understanding of a Connected Device with Cisco’s definition, we end up with:

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects Connected Devices, which can be accessed through the Internet.

Once we have networks of Connected Devices, the IoT is just a subset of those networks that can be accessed over the Internet. For example, it’s foreseeable that people have all their appliances at home speaking to one another, but never be on the Internet. Only once that network is online, does it become part of the Internet of Things and can be classified as such.

What does all of this mean in practical terms?

A picture is worth a thousand words here…

IoT Example

The smart home in the image above is a practical example of what happens when a network of Connected Devices gains contextual awareness. They are able to work together to manage dependencies and complete tasks. Add Internet connectivity and now we do things like send a message to the home owner and update firmware.

In fact, this scenario is not far-fetched at all. Every device in the cartoon already exists today: