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Internet of Things: The next wave in computing

Posted: 26 May 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Internet of Things  IoT  machine-to-machine  M2M  iPhone 

As the next evolution of computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) is touted to be bigger than all previous computing markets. PCs were the first 100-million-unit-per-year market in the electronics industry. The desktop market today comprises about a billion devices. This includes all the PCs and various wired devices we have in our lives. The handset market was the first one-billion-unit-per-year market for semiconductors. And now the IoT is poised to become the first computing market to reach 10 billion units a year.

Industry experts believe that the IoT will surpass 15 billion connected devices by 2015 and will grow to 50 billion connected devices by 2020. Most of these devices will not be conventional PCs or smartphones. They will be smaller and lower cost, and some of these devices will operate and communicate autonomously. This growing web of interconnected devices includes home appliances, security systems, smart thermostats, smart meters, portable medical devices, health and fitness trackers, smart watches and many other mobile products.

Gartner predicts that the IoT will grow to 26 billion installed units by 2020 (excluding PCs, tablets, and smartphones) while ABI Research predicts that the total number of connected devices will more than triple to reach 30 billion units by 2020. Although analysts and other industry experts may differ in their estimates of the size of the IoT market, they all agree that the IoT opportunity is huge. It's bigger than the smartphone market today, and it's going to have a major impact on the economy and how we live.

The phrase "Internet of Things" dates back to 1999, when the British sensor researcher Kevin Ashton (working for Procter & Gamble at that time) is believed to be the first person to use the term in a presentation. Ashton's early predictions for the IoT are turning out to be on target. The IoT concept has evolved to include billions of devices connected wirelessly to the Internet. Already there are more Internet-connected devices on the planet than people (figure). These connections can be device-to-person (or vice versa) or machine-to-machine (M2M).

Figure: More connected devices on the planet today than people. Source: Silicon Labs. Thomson Reuters, Morgan Stanley.

Admittedly, there is a "cool" factor to many IoT applications. Consider the profusion of Apple iPhone apps that allow users to remotely monitor and control security, HVAC, and lighting systems with the stroke of a touchscreen. The majority of connected devices for the IoT are nodes located at the so-called "last inch" of the network. Using microcontrollers (MCUs) as the programmable brains of the IoT, embedded sensors and actuators serve as its virtual eyes, ears, and fingers, monitoring and reacting to changes in temperature, humidity, light, physical intrusions, and other environmental conditions.

M2M connectivity, rather than continuous end-user interaction, is vital to the IoT. End users do not want to have to monitor 50 or more sensors placed throughout their homes to see if they've left lights on during the day or if there has been a security breach. They would prefer to be alerted directly by an in-home energy management or security system. The distributed intelligence of the IoT can unlock the power of M2M connectivity, using the many virtual interconnections between devices to provide real-time data about our energy usage, lighting systems, and security alarms. Connected devices can act autonomously on our behalf either through direct communication with each other or interaction with a smart gateway or cloud computing resources. Connected devices can also be controlled by end users using smart phones, tablets, PCs, and device interfaces.

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