Being direct part of the worldwide development community for "Internet of things" and connected device and working day by day on architectural topics and talking to many experts in this area, I've mentioned that indeed the technologies behind IoT are well known but the definition of IoT itself is very diverse. My key experience was while I was participating the Security of Things conference in Berlin this year. The discussions what IoT is and what is IoT not started already during the icebreaking session the evening before the first official day and continues in the same manner during the next two days. I've heard statements like "Every PC is an Internet of things device" over "Any internet connectivity must be disabled (to guarantee security)" up to "We log the values of a digital thermometer by hand and enter them in a specific AWS-based Back-End to run analytics on it ... therefore we converted our thermometer to an Internet of things device". This experience gave me the impulse find a proper definition of IoT for myself, and to be honest, it was very hard.
IoT a great term - used for everything!
IoT a buzzword you see on any fair or congress nowadays, especially if industry or consumer devices are promoted. You can buy an IoT cloud, security products, especially for Internet of Things, AI for IoT or IoT, is AI... protocols making IoT smart and especially IoT devices. But what is behind Internet of Things?
IoT is, as you know, an abbreviation for Internet of Things. Very simple, one can say, so we can stop here! Unfortunately, it is not that simple, and this is also the reason why also if two IoT experts talk to each other they often don't talk about the same. This article is my attempt to sort my thoughts about this topic and initiate a controversial discussion between you, me and the community - simply create am internet of things definition for my self.
My personal opinion is that IoT is a great term for a technology like this. It is short, people can easily remember the abbreviation and it can be combined easily with additions for a deeper specification, e.g. IIot-Industrial IoT, Sot - Security of things. But due to the way of current usage of the term it converts more and more to a buzz word with a bad taste because of the lack uniformity and also usage to promote bullshit without any reference to IoT world. This is the way how great ideas and technologies can be blighted. It starts already with the definition.
How is the term IoT defined and accepted widely? A great overview about the public view on the IoT definition can be found in ExpertenDerIT, unfortunately only in German. Following is the translated essence
"[...]objects in the real world, which are connected to the internet."
" (IoT) [...] is a technical vision to integrate any object in a universal digital network."
"[...] interconnection of things over the internet to enable autonomous communication [...] "
"[...] communication between devices [...]. This Devices collect information about itself and its surrounding and transmit it to other objects [...]"
As you can see there is no common view on that. Further, you can find the main characteristics of an IoT device.
Ingredients of IoT
"Are there maybe some specific ingredients which shall be part of each IoT device?"
I would say "YES", you can see them in the simple visualization below.
- Is it really a "thing"? Is the original task of the device transmit data to the internet, or was it adapted? Does the "thing" sense, process or collect any digital data?
EXAMPLE: the original task of a router is to transmit data, the original task of a watch is to show the time and a connected watch has an additional function of data transmission.
- Does the thing provide any common communication interfaces? Often we talk about an RF interface but wired interfaces are also not a KO criteria.
EXAMPLE: As soon as one wants to transfer data from a digital device to a receiver or allow any remote control functionality, common communication interfaces are required.
- Is the "thing" connected directly to the internet or use a gateway to transmit its data continuously?
EXAMPLE: A Fitbit wristband is not connected directly but uses the mobile phone as a gateway, but it transmits data to a platform on the internet.
The following sections will show some real life examples of what is IoT and what is not. I have chosen products from Bosch Connected Devices and Solutions (BCDS) on purpose because I know the products very well due to the fact that I'm working there as a system architect. And as nice a side effect, I hope I will also generate some discussions which give me some alternative views on this topic.
Is it a thing or is it not?
Talking about IoT most of the "experts" focus on the connectivity aspect, which is also important, to define a device as IoT device or not. I think the most important question is "Is the main task of the device to process digital data or not?". If the main task is not to process digital data but this functionality was added to be able to collect this data then I would talk about a real thing. Some examples and anti-examples:
- the main task of a thermometer is to measure the temperature - a digital thermometer is a thing
- the main task of a thermostat is to control the heater depending on the temperature - a digital thermostat is a thing
- the main task of a personal computer is to collect, process, transfer, visualize digital data - a personal computer is not a thing
- the main task of a USB-hub is to route digital data from one port to another - a USB-hub is not a thing
For sure there are also a lot of devices outside where one can discuss a lot whether we talk about a thing or not. For example, what is the main purpose of a smartphone? If the main task is to telephone then I will classify it as a thing, but nowadays smartphones are mainly used for the task which is very similar to the one of a personal computer, therefore not a thing .... not that simple.
Connected Devices - Connected Things
Below you can see a more general view on the topic of connected devices. As connected devices, all electronic devices are seen which are somehow connected to a local control unit but not to the internet. For connectivity, all types of technologies can be used wireless as well as wired. Another important aspect is, IoT devices generate and collect a lot of data but for the evaluation and decision making, there are still humans behind the system at least to formulate the decision rules.
The following subsections contain some examples.
Transport Data Logger (TDL)
Connected devices are "Grandfathers" of the IoT devices. The main connectivity use case is to allow monitoring of the vital parameters and to control and remote configuration. Both, monitoring and configuration, was done by personnel or very specific proprietary systems which were used for process automation. Even if the deceives allow a connection to the Ethernet, they were never build to be used widely in the WAN, in the best case widely in the LAN.
Great example for such devices is the "Transport Data Logger" - TDL from Bosch Connected Devices and Solutions. It is a great example for a connected device, means a mixture of a thing together with connectivity features but without an internet connection. TDLs main task is to measure vital data of transferred goods. It is done by collecting sensor data from different sensors and provides this data to an APP as soon as a user is connected via BLE. The data is, at least in the first version, never send to an internet service where an additional processing or visualization can be implemented.
Because an automated, transfer to the internet is missing I will never call the TDL an IoT device, only a connected device.
One excellent example of a thing where the classification, IoT or not, is tricky is the retrofit ecall system, also from BCDS. The device is a plug for the cigarette lighter in the car which monitors the movement of the car and reports an alert to the connected mobile phone. The mobile phone app sends the alert to a call center together with some positioning data using the Internet connection of the mobile phone. The call center evaluates the data and triggers a set of subprocesses one of them is typically a call to the emergency services if no "false alarm" is confirmed by the device owner.
Therefore we a talking about a device where already the classification as a "thing" is difficult, due to the fact that reporting of irregular changes in movement is the main task of the retrofit ecall. Next topic, the connectivity, is easier the device use Bluetooth low energy to communicate with the mobile phone. The mobile phone acts as a "gateway" to forward the data to an internet based service where the data is pushed to an ecall system. The internet connection is not steady but is established only if necessary and the user does not have any access to the data in the back-end.
To summarize, we have an electronic device using BLE to provide some data to an app where the data is enriched and send to the internet. If no mobile phone is available, no data transfer occurs at all.
Internet Connected Device - Internet of Things
Below I've tried to summarize and visualize the relationship between IoT devices and the infrastructures, in the subsections, you can find some examples together with an explanation why I classify the products as IoT devices
In my opinion, one of the best examples of an IoT device is a "dash button" or in my case a "Heineken button", really ... why shall I buy dash? Let's do the check.
- Is it a thing? - Yes because the main task of a button is to be pushed, nothing else. In the case of a "Heineken button", every button press triggers an order of some Heineken on Amazon for a dedicated
- Does it provide connectivity? - Yes, the button has a wireless LAN module inside and allows the user to connect it to the home WLAN.
- Is it connected to the internet? - Yes, using the connectivity functionality the button doesn't stay in the home WLAN but establish a direct connection with Amazon and set an order directly there.
Another great example is Philips hue. Simple idea connects light bulbs to the internet to allow the owner, unfortunately not only him, to control light intensity and atmosphere chilling on the sofa. Again the check
- Is it a thing? - Yes, the main task is to light up the area or room
- Does it provide connectivity? - Yes, the bulb is connected via ZigBee to a central hub the hub itself is connected to the local home network and allow local connections as well as internet connections.
- Is it connected to the internet? - Yes, the central hub is connected to the internet and act as a gateway forwarding the message in both directions.
'IoT Ready' ... Seriously?
Being critical, by nature, I still try to understand the drive behind something before criticize. In the case of "IoT-ready", I was already biased just from the chosen wording. I think you can also see some parallels to the "HD ready" stickers being available on the TVs. I hope you can also remember the confusion of most users about the informative value of such stickers. There were general stickers with "HD ready" others with "Full HD", "Full HD TV", "Full HD 1080", "HD ready 720", "HD ready 720p", "HD ready 1080p" and many, many more. And there we talk only about 2 different resolutions.
But I've still tried to get more information and to catch the idea. Below is, everything, what the initiators have on their webpage
IoT-Ready™ is an alliance of leading lighting, building management, and Internet of Things (IoT) companies and organizations that are creating a common standard for IoT-enabled lighting fixtures. This standard will ensure all new LED lighting fixtures can be shipped with a standard socket to easily add intelligent IoT sensors to the fixture after the fixture has been installed.
Are you serious? Philips Hue, or other smart bulb manufacturers, shows you how a fixing looks like. It's in the most cases an E14 or E27 fixing and your bulb itself has the logic and RF interface inside. The communication is done via RF or just by switching the power lines off. But this is only one aspect.
The other is the variety of the underlying technologies in IoT, a large amount of RF Interfaces and protocols just to pick out two of them. And they will definitely stay because they are reasons for the existence of this protocols and RF interfaces. I'm very curious how the sticker will look like for them :-) here some ideas
- "IoT-ready, ZigBee Version 3.0, no encryption, 10dB gain, MQTT ready" or
- "IoT-ready, WLAN (ad only) (Wifi with WPA2 PSK) + BLE 5.0 no mash, LWM2M"
For my opinion the next money machine for the initiators without a substance.