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What is the IoT? Everything you need to know about the Internet of Things right now

Thanks to the arrival of super-cheap computer chips and the ubiquity of wireless networks, it's possible to turn anything, from something as small as a pill to something as big as an aeroplane, into a part of the IoT.

Some larger objects may themselves be filled with many smaller IoT components, such as a jet engine that's now filled with thousands of sensors collecting and transmitting data back to make sure it is operating efficiently.

At an even bigger scale, smart cities projects are filling entire regions with sensors to help us understand and control the environment.  SEE: 5G: What it means for IoT (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) |

The idea of adding sensors and intelligence to basic objects was discussed throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and there are arguably some much earlier ancestors), but apart from some early projects -- including an internet-connected vending machine -- progress was slow simply because the technology wasn't ready.

The adoption of IPv6 -- which, among other things, should provide enough IP addresses for every device the world (or indeed this galaxy) is ever likely to need -- was also a necessary step for the IoT to scale.  Kevin Ashton coined the phrase 'Internet of Things' in 1999, although it took at least another decade for the technology to catch up with the vision.

But since then, the cost of adding sensors and an internet connection to objects has continued to fall, and experts predict that this basic functionality could one day cost as little as 10 cents, making it possible to connect nearly everything to the internet.

The IoT was initially most interesting to business and manufacturing, where its application is sometimes known as machine-to-machine (M2M), but the emphasis is now on filling our homes and offices with smart devices, transforming it into something that's relevant to almost everyone.

Early suggestions for internet-connected devices included 'blogjects' (objects that blog and record data about themselves to the internet), ubiquitous computing (or 'ubicomp'), invisible computing, and pervasive computing.

It also suggests industrial and automotive equipment represent the largest opportunity of connected 'things,', but it also sees strong adoption of smart home and wearable devices in the near term.

Building automation – like connected lighting – will be the fastest growing sector, followed by automotive (connected cars) and healthcare (monitoring of chronic conditions). 

While industry-specific products will make the early running, by 2020 Gartner predicts that cross-industry devices will reach 4.4 billion units, while vertical-specific devices will amount to 3.2 billion units.

Worldwide spending on the IoT was forecast to reach $745 billion in 2019, an increase of 15.4% over the $646 billion spent in 2018, according to IDC, and pass the $1 trillion mark in 2022.

Top industries for the IoT were predicted to be discrete manufacturing ($119 billion in spending), process manufacturing ($78 billion), transportation ($71 billion), and utilities ($61 billion).

Consumer IoT spending was predicted to hit $108 billion, making it the second largest industry segment: smart home, personal wellness, and connected vehicle infotainment will see much of the spending.

By use case, manufacturing operations ($100 billion), production asset management ($44.2 billion), smart home ($44.1 billion), and freight monitoring ($41.7 billion) will be the largest areas of investment.  What is the Industrial Internet of Things?

The concept is the same as for the consumer IoT devices in the home, but in this case the aim is to use a combination of sensors, wireless networks, big data, AI and analytics to measure and optimise industrial processes.  If introduced across an entire supply chain, rather than just individual companies, the impact could be even greater with just-in-time delivery of materials and the management of production from start to finish.

Researchers found 100,000 webcams that could be hacked with ease, while some internet-connected smartwatches for children have been found to contain security vulnerabilities that allow hackers to track the wearer's location, eavesdrop on conversations, or even communicate with the user.

It expects devices to have unique passwords, that companies will provide a public point of contact so anyone can report a vulnerability (and that these will be acted on), and that manufacturers will explicitly state how long devices will get security updates.

Take the smart home: it can tell when you wake up (when the smart coffee machine is activated) and how well you brush your teeth (thanks to your smart toothbrush), what radio station you listen to (thanks to your smart speaker), what type of food you eat (thanks to your smart oven or fridge), what your children think (thanks to their smart toys), and who visits you and passes by your house (thanks to your smart doorbell).

In one project, a researcher found that by analysing data charting just the home's energy consumption, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, temperature, and humidity throughout the day they could work out what someone was having for dinner.

It might seem like a trivial threat but imagine if the smart locks at your office refused to open one morning or the smart weather station in the CEO's office was used by hackers to create a backdoor into your network.

US intelligence community briefings have warned that the country's adversaries already have the ability to threaten its critical infrastructure as well 'as the broader ecosystem of connected consumer and industrial devices known as the Internet of Things'.

Internet of Things and big data analytics The IoT generates vast amounts of data: from sensors attached to machine parts or environment sensors, or the words we shout at our smart speakers.

Giving a manufacturer vast amounts of data about how its components behave in real-world situations can help them to make improvements much more rapidly, while data culled from sensors around a city could help planners make traffic flow more efficiently.

'Metadata is a prime candidate to be fed into NoSQL databases like MongoDB to bring structure to unstructured content or fed into cognitive systems to bring new levels of understanding, intelligence, and order to outwardly random environments,' it said.

Cisco calculates that machine-to machine connections that support IoT applications will account for more than half of the total 27.1 billion devices and connections, and will account for 5% of global IP traffic by 2021.

Internet of Things and the cloud The huge amount of data that IoT applications generate means that many companies will choose to do their data processing in the cloud rather than build huge amounts of in-house capacity.

Cities already generate large amounts of data (from security cameras and environmental sensors) and already contain big infrastructure networks (like those controlling traffic lights).

However, the vast number of different options has already led some to argue that IoT communications standards need to be as accepted and interoperable as Wi-Fi is today.  One area of growth in the next few years will undoubtedly be the use of 5G networks to support IoT projects.

5G offers the ability to fit as many as one million 5G devices in a square kilometre, which means that it will be possible to use a vast number of sensors in a very small area, making large-scale industrial IoT deployments more possible.

Outdoor surveillance cameras will be the largest market for 5G IoT devices in the near term, according to Gartner, accounting for the majority (70%) of the 5G IoT devices this year, before dropping to around 30% by the end of 2023, at which point they will be overtaken by connected cars.

most companies that are engaging with the IoT are at the trial stage right now, largely because the necessary technology – sensor technology, 5G and machine-learning powered analytics – are still themselves at a reasonably early stage of development.

As the number of connected devices continues to rise, our living and working environments will become filled with smart products – assuming we are willing to accept the security and privacy trade-offs.

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