Bland by name and superficially viewed as gee-whiz technology never to be realized, the IoT (Internet of things) has significant potential to transform business. Early forays into Net-enabling physical objects are already pointing the way.
Promising unprecedented connectivity among objects and the gathering of massive amounts of data, IoT is poised to deliver significant business benefits to organizations forward-thinking enough to envision the opportunities and efficiencies IoT can reap.
Resource monitoring, usage pattern tracking, just-in-time delivery of goods and services -- some IoT pioneers have launched or are deploying projects, and they're seeing positive results.
But if your organization is looking to explore IoT as a business strategy, be warned that a number of technical and administrative challenges await you. Here's a look at the opportunities, hurdles, and new skills required to make the most of this intersection of Web-enabled physical objects and the deluge of data they will bring.
What exactly is the Internet of things?
At its heart, IoT is a wide-ranging ecosystem of everyday physical objects connected to the Internet, capable of identifying themselves and communicating data to other objects on the network.
The concept initially gained traction via the Auto-ID Center, a nonprofit collaboration of private businesses and academic institutions that created a Web-like infrastructure to track goods through the use of RFID tags that carry EPCs (Electronic Product Codes). The Auto-ID Center shuttered in 2003. EPCGlobal was then launched to commercialize EPC technology, and research continues today at universities around the world.
The basic IoT stack is composed of a tracking technology such as RFID or bar codes, sensors, embedded software, and wireless Internet connectivity. "Transponder nodes" affixed to physical objects -- anything from a truck to a bottle of pills -- uniquely identify themselves to the Internet. By Web-enabling just about any type of product or equipment (vehicles, construction equipment, gas and electric meters, appliances, vending machines, and so on) the IoT will allow information about these objects to be captured, resulting in a network of "smart objects" that can actively participate in a variety of business processes.
Fueling the IoT revolution is a combination of ubiquitous connectivity, low-cost sensors, and microelectronics that allow almost anything to be connected to the Internet. The greatest enabler of IoT applications for business may be the smartphone, with its ability to optically scan bar codes or RFID tags.
"Even simple phones support manual data entry of serialized identifiers such that an individual item can be tracked," says Stephen Miles, research affiliate and consultant at the Auto-ID Labs and Center for Biomedical Innovation at MIT, both of which are working on IoT projects.
The rise of mobile devices and steadily decreasing prices for components, such as Wi-Fi radios, GPS chips, and 8-bit controllers with flash memory, have Gartner predicting that nearly every industry will be affected by the IoT. The research firm cautions, however, that the IoT "will be widely adopted only if the technology is available to all [including consumers] in a way that is inexpensive and easy to use."
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