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Understanding the evolution of the internet of things

The internet of things has certainly come a long way since Kevin Ashton coined the term way back in 1999. Quite a lot has been written about IoT over the past 17 years, with many analysts and journalists correctly predicting an almost exponential increase in connected devices. While most people focus these days on where IoT is going, I think it’s just as important to talk about the past in order to understand the future.

Just a few decades ago, most Americans were “connected” to the world outside their homes in very limited ways, primarily with landline telephones, radios and televisions. Aside from the telephone, home radios and televisions were a one-way experience. You could watch or listen, but not talk or interact with a radio or TV. All of this began to slowly change with the advent of home computers, such as those made by Atari and Commodore in the 1980s and later the IBM PC. Suddenly, entire families could interact with a machine in a more meaningful way, and more importantly, the outside world as well.

The notion of connectivity was still very much in its infancy, as slow dial-up speeds and sparse infrastructure hampered online activity. But aided by Moore’s Law, this was technology that was available to the masses and becoming more affordable every year. But during this time, concerns over online security and privacy began to work their way into the public consciousness, with movies like War Games illustrating the pitfalls of this new digital Wild West. By the late 1990s, landlines had given way to mobile phones, DSL had replaced dial-up, and clunky desktops were fast being supplanted by sleek laptops and, later, by tablets. Online commerce boomed (along with fraud) as most people became connected to the internet one way or another.

And then the inevitable happened. Devices which were not originally designed for internet connectivity began to go online, such as vehicles, watches, refrigerators, washing machines and medical monitoring systems. And so, in many ways, we are still grappling with the rapid changes and technological advancements that began in the middle of the 20th century. For instance, there were no privacy or security concerns over a watch worn in 1932. Although a watch could certainly be physically stolen, no one really had to worry about the watch disclosing personal information that could enable identity theft or fraud. Similarly, aside from its mechanical components, the modern vehicle can be thought of as a network of networks which can be attacked, hacked and even driven off the road. Obviously this wasn’t an issue for a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle.

As the internet of things evolves, the industry must develop new ways to tackle important issues like privacy, security and how to deal with the enormous amount of data generated by connected devices. In addition to developing technology to address these issues is the added difficulty of developing solutions that fit the business needs of the markets being served. The internet of things crosses boundaries between enterprises and consumers, further complicating the technical and business needs of solutions that will be accepted in the market. In future posts, I’ll be exploring some of these ideas and key challenges further.

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