For anyone relatively new to the topic, Wired recently published a Guide to IoT that does an excellent job of walking through some key moments in the development of IoT, as well as offering a smart take on the state of the industry today (if it even makes sense to refer to IoT as an “industry,” but more on that later). Most general interest pieces on the topic tend to hit a lot of the same notes: smart toasters, security concerns, billions of devices, etc. But senior writer Arielle Pardes digs deeper to discuss issues like connectivity, security, and functionality in really compelling ways.
The entire piece is well worth a read, but here are a few salient points that I found particularly worthwhile.
IoT has its origins in aspirational post-war America. I knew that Nixon had a famous confrontation with Kruschev at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, but I didn’t know that it took place in front of an automated “Miracle Kitchen” exhibit from Whirlpool that even included a “proto Roomba” that swept the floors. It was mostly vaporware, of course, but it’s fascinating to see the cultural and ideological origins of the smart appliances we take for granted today. In many ways, we’re still living with the domestic dreams and science fiction scenarios of Post-War America, the “smart home” being a prime example.
IoT has an author. The phrase “Internet of Things” didn’t just materialize out of the ether (or the toaster, or the refrigerator, etc). It was coined by a man named Kevin Ashton in 1999. At the time Ashton was a supply chain specialist (particularly in the use of RFID tags), and he was giving a presentation to Procter & Gamble. He was attempting to describe “a system where sensors acted like the eyes and ears of a computer—an entirely new way for computers to see, hear, touch, and interpret their surroundings.” His background makes perfect sense — complicated supply chains use radio-frequency identification technology to monitor and optimize themselves. What happens when everything is essentially an RFID tag?
The security concerns are very real. Here Pardes quotes another WIRED writer Lily Hay Newman, who sums up the IoT security issue with startling clarity: “IoT devices have been conscripted into massive botnets, compromised for nation-state reconnaissance, hacked to mine cryptocurrency, and manipulated in assaults on power grids.” The infamous Target hack of 2014 (which exposed a jaw-dropping 40 million credit numbers) started a phishing attack on a contractor that took care of their air conditioning systems. Vulnerabilities caused by disparate operating systems are a big culprit here; both California and Oregon have passed IoT security legislation, and no doubt more is in the works.
5G is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. 5G, which promises to bring speeds of around 10 gigabits per second to your phone (fast enough to download a 4K high definition movie in 25 seconds), is finally starting to enter the market, thanks to the pandemic. The FCC has accelerated its timeline for improving existing internet infrastructure, and we’re already starting to see 5G show up in places like hospitals and factories. It’s probably still a few years away from mainstream ubiquity, but 5G promises to do something pretty amazing: to completely eliminate any and all connectivity issues forever and ever. Wouldn’t that be nice?
IoT ultimately won’t be an industry, it will be everything. As I mentioned previously, general interest IoT pieces tend to focus on consumer scenarios, but obviously this is a phenomena that is going to affect every single product on planet. As Pardes notes, “Smart hospital rooms will have sensors to ensure that doctors wash their hands, and airborne sensors will help cities predict mudslides and other natural disasters. Autonomous vehicles will connect to the internet and drive along roads studded with sensors, and governments will manage the demands on their energy grids by tracking household energy consumption through the internet of things.” We’re going to see very real changes in our daily lives over the next decade. In many ways it feels like the future is finally starting to catch up with us.
So what’s missing? What did the article leave out? At the risk of sounding obvious, the piece doesn’t address the business model of IoT. How are people going to pay for it? How are companies going to charge for it? How will people ascribe value to IoT, and then manifest that value in some kind of cost/payment structure? These are all very fundamental questions which don’t have definitive answers yet, but here’s a very good start.