Everyone speaks about the Internet of Things. So it’s important to know what we’re really talking about in order to understand eachother, starting with an Internet of Things definition.
However, there is no universal Internet of Things definition (IoT) and it is not that easy to define IoT because it has become an umbrella term for many realities which, in the end, have little in common. As you will see in the definitions below there are several approaches and views.
Defining the Internet of Things: an evolving activity and reality
It’s important to know that the definition of the Internet of Things is in evolution in several ways:
- Industry bodies are updating definitions and descriptions in a field that is still lacking standardization. Some have published definitions and descriptions, counting several dozens of pages as we’ll see (and it’s interesting material).
- The market is changing definitions too. Whether it concerns analysts or companies, which are very active in the IoT space: many of them have changed their definitions and views (and some are changing them as we speak).
- There is a shift in the way we think about the Internet of Things. You can define things based upon what they are and what they are not. You can also define them without a real definition but rather by focusing on their characteristics. And, as far as we’re concerned the most important question to answer in a definition: why do we use something we describe, where does it come from, where is it going and what can it do for us?
- The many use cases and context within which the Internet of Things resides are becoming far more important. While the Internet of Things – and we weigh our words – as a ‘reality’ has benefits and consequences many can’t grasp yet, we need to change the narrative and look at IoT from the holistic perspective of 1) how it is connected with people, processes, data, business, innovation, meaning, etc. and of 2) the outcomes and goals from an integrated view, with regards to ecosystems of value, of related technologies and of business and platform ecosystems.
Our Internet of Things definition is a bit a mix of all that.
What the Internet of Things is not
Before sharing it (and over 20 more definitions) we must emphasize (and remind) a few things.
Not every connected device is part of the Internet of Things
We have been connecting devices and ‘things’ to the Internet and other networks since quite some time.
This doesn’t mean by definition that all these ‘connected’ devices nor their inherent capacities are part of what we know as the Internet of Things.
Connected devices and the networks we use to achieve specific goals with them are at least two decades old, albeit for specific and more ‘simple’ purposes.
Think about how we have been using RFID tags in logistics, manufacturing and warehousing for years to track items (and NFC or near field communications). Thik about machine-to-machine networks, ATMs, point of sales systems and so forth. More history and details on how the term Internet of Things was coined on our Internet of Things overview page.
The Internet of Things is not the Internet
Strictly speaking when we talk about the Internet we mean a bunch of connected items, network technologies, sensing and gateway devices, endpoints, data analysis systems/approaches, protocols and standards of which the Internet Protocol (IP) is the main one.
While many physical objects and sensors which we mention in a context of the Internet of Things use IP (or are IP-enabled as we would say in the Industrial Internet of Things), not all of them do. Yet, in general we only speak about the Internet of Things when ‘things’ (endpoints) are uniquely addressable, using an IP address or Uniform Resource Identifier. It might sound a bit confusing and it’s one of the reasons why the Internet of Things is probably not the best name invented ever as we’ve tackled here.
The Internet of Things is not a thing
This brings us to the next point: although we speak about the Internet of Things as if it were a thing it is many things but also an ecosystem of inevitably related processes and other technologies from the perspective of a goal within a specific use case.
It is not just about the connected devices but also about the hardware and software and connectivity solutions to create IoT solutions as mentioned. And it’s also about many processes and technologies (big data analytics, cloud, edge computing and IoT connectivity approaches, etc.) which are needed to do something with IoT deployments. Last but not least the Internet of Things really is a huge umbrella term.
The Internet of Things is not the best term ever
This brings us to yet another point: the Internet of Things, as a term, is used for so many types of applications, industries and use cases that all too often people don’t mean the same thing when talking about IoT.
This is another reason why the Internet of Things is not the best term ever. In fact, just as big data really is a misnomer, one can consider the Internet of Things a wrong name too. For some the Internet of Things is related with consumer electronics and consumer applications, ranging from connected fitness wearables to smart thermostats. Others look at the Internet of Things from a business and society perspective: the IoT as it’s used in applications such as smart parking or track and trace solutions. And then there is the Internet of Things in a more industrial context. Think about oil and gas or logistics and manufacturing, for instance.
What is the Internet of Things? It partially depends on whom you ask
This shows why a definition of the Internet of Things really depends on whom you ask and how, in the end, many people mean many different things.
You can’t really compare a connected smart lamp in your house with an Internet of Things solution for livestock monitoring or an IoT-powered smart manufacturing plant.
Ideally we would define the Internet of Things – and also look at it – from the perspective of use cases, actual IoT deployments, the applications that are possible and the many ways that the combination of connected devices or connectivity and big data (analytics) – which in fact exist since quite some time – can be leveraged.
What is the Internet of Things according to others? Common elements in IoT definitions
As mentioned we made a list of some definitions which we found across the Web. While some are too narrow or sometimes even inaccurate, most are valid.
Most Internet of Things definition have several aspects in common.
Here are the elements they have in common:
Everyone talks about a network (of devices, sensors or objects, depending on the source). Some call that network the Internet (however, keep in mind our reminders mentioned previously).
It’s pretty clear that a dimension of networks and connectedness, we would even say hyper-connectedness, needs to be present in any decent IoT definition. The discussion then becomes if it’s “just” about the Internet or also about other networks. You know the answer. Obviously, the dimension of automation is an important one in many Internet of Things use cases, from a connectivity perspective too (more below).
Devices, physical objects, sensors, the physical world, appliances, endpoints, the list goes on.
They are all terms to describe what is obviously an essential part of a network of things. Some add words such as smart or intelligent to the devices. Let’s say that they contain technology that grants them an additional capability of ‘doing something’: measuring temperature or moisture levels, capturing location data, sensing movement or capturing any other form of action and context that can be captured and turned into data.
This is part of that intelligent notion but it also brings us far closer to the essence.
You can define the Internet of Things by simply describing all characteristics (“what it is”) but you also need to look at its purpose (“the why”). Data is a crucial part of this equation, albeit just a first step as data as such is not enough. However, there is no Internet of Things without (big) data.
Data as such is maybe not without value but it sure is without meaning unless it is used for a purpose and it is turned into meaning, insights, intelligence and actions.
Maybe you heard about the good old DIKW model (from data to information to knowledge to wisdom – and action)? Well, the data gathered and sensed by IoT devices needs to be communicated in order to even start turning it into actionable information, let alone knowledge, insights, wisdom or actions.
Intelligence and action
We just touched upon this aspect. However, in most definitions we see that intelligence is attributed to just the network(s) and/or the devices.
While we certainly need, for instance, ‘intelligent networking technologies’ in many cases and while connected devices have a capacity of action, the real intelligence and action sits in the analysis of the data and the smart usage of this data to solve a challenge, create a competitive benefit, automate a process, improve something, whatever possible action our IoT solution wants to tackle. Just as there is no Internet of Things without (big) data, there is no useful Internet of Things deployment without understanding meaning, intelligence, (big) data analytics, cognitive and AI and so on.
There is always a degree of automation, no matter the scope of the project or the type of Internet of Things application.
In fact, most IoT applications are essentially all about automation. And that often comes with costs and benefits. Industrial automation, business process automation or the automatic updating of software: it all plays a role, depending on the context. You know the saying: software eats the world. Well, it also drives Tesla cars and soon autonomous vehicles whereby maintenance, upgrades and so forth are all about automation and software, powered by data which are fed by sensors and connected devices.
Meaning and hyper-connectedness is what we miss in many answers on the questions regarding what the Internet of Things is.
We stay too descriptive and focused on just the technologies and don’t look at purpose and intelligent action enough. Obviously we can say that this isn’t strictly about the Internet of Things but more about the Internet of Everything or the Internet of Things ecosystem or something else but for us it’s key in order not to confuse the Internet of Things with a bunch of fitness devices that are connected with some app, for instance. Because, although these are the kinds of apps most people speak about, they certainly are where the majority of Internet of Things use cases are and they are the furthest away from the original meaning of IoT.
Moreover, we miss the aspect of hyper-connectivity. In a context of a reality whereby devices, people, processes and information are more interconnected than ever before an Internet of Things definition and approach just needs to mention these aspects as the IoT is part of something broader and is more about data, meaning and purpose than about objects.
A key element of that hyper-connectivity in the IoT sphere is that sometimes mentioned ongoing bridging of digital and physical environments, along with human environments, processes and data as the glue, enabler and condition to create value when properly used for connected purposes.
Then there is also the possibility to create new ecosystems where connected device usage by groups of people can lead to new applications and forms of community ecosystems. Last but not least and we’ve mentioned this often before: no Internet of Things without security.
Defining the Internet of Things: many situations, applications and terms to describe them
In order to distinguish between the many potential use cases and situations where the Internet of Things is and can be used, other terms have been added and they do overlap a bit in some cases (no term is perfect).
Consumer Internet of Things
The Consumer Internet of Things is what almost everybody knows. It’s what the media is talking about most.
The Consumer Internet of Things or CIoT is where you will find applications and use cases to track your personal ‘assets’ (asset tracking), from your pet to your skateboard. Or where you will find the connected ‘smart appliances’ such as connected refrigerators, washing machines, light bulbs, etc. Also wearables and all sorts of consumer electronics such as smart wristwear belong to this category, along with all sorts of smart home appliances like thermostats or connected parking door openers.
The applications get better and smarter. They also get more independent from other devices such as smartphones. This is certainly the case with smart wearables.
Typically, data volumes and data communication needs are low and limited. That’s why there are many technologies of which some are specifically designed for consumer applications, ranging from smart home connectivity standards to special operating systems for wearables.
The Industrial Internet of Things
The Industrial Internet of Things describes typical industry use cases across a range of sectors. Some people see the Industrial Internet of Things more in a context of ‘heavy’ industries like manufacturing or utilities. But it is also used for use cases in, for example smart cities and smart metering.
If we look at it as a sort of ‘Business Internet of Things’ it is clear that there are some overlaps with the Consumer Internet of Things. For instance: if you have a smart thermostat and smart energy consumption meter in your house they are on one hand consumer applications because they are for personal usage. But from the perspective of the company that uses it to send you invoices and to help optimize energy consumption it is an IIoT case. So, the terms are not that good but that’s how it is and it’s better to look at use cases than at these broad categories because just as there are many different applications in the Consumer Internet of Things, there are also many in IIoT and some are hard to compare.
If you look at a simple smart city application, for instance for smart waste management or smart parking, you don’t need many data and data rates. Moreover, in many applications data doesn’t need to be sent constantly. On the other side of the IIoT spectrum can be very heavy industrial applications, like in oil and gas, where there is much more needed.
For the various scenarios and types of IIoT applications, different connectivity and data solutions have been developed, from cellular IoT and low-powered wide-area to industrial.
What is the Internet of Things: the answers
So, what is the Internet of Things then?
Defining the Internet of Things as a foundation and enabler
The Internet of Things is an umbrella term which describes a multi-faceted foundation for a range of applications and goals which are enabled through the connection of items (devices, sensors, tagged beings), which are equipped with data capture and communication capacities, uniquely identifiable and connected in order to transmit and/or received data for a clear human, business or societal purpose.
The Internet of Things enables a smarter bridging of digital, physical and human spheres by adding these capacities in a secure way to a networked environment.
Mostly using Internet technologies such as IP, the connection of the capacities of IoT-enabled devices and applications fit in a broader ecosystem of IoT-specific protocols, standards and architectures, data analysis, information management, communication and network technologies; specific technologies depending on the use case, automation, processes and people, with an insights-driven societal, industrial, business and/or human purpose in mind.
The Internet of Things, anything and everything
If you step away from the technological perspective of the Internet of Things (which in this stage obviously gets a lot of attention, as do the various IoT connectivity technologies, devices and security aspects in a still hyped and, despite what many think, early stage) AND if you step away from dividing the Internet of Things from an industrial, business and consumer perspective (which as mentioned leads to new umbrella terms), you can look at the actual benefits, role and meaning of the Internet of Things.
In that sense there are two terms that are far closer to the holistic perspective we always seek and just described in our definition.
Industrial Internet: a holistic IoT definition
A first term, which we mentioned earlier, is the Industrial Internet. It’s often used interchangeably with the Industrial Internet of Things and today it’s also where an association of organizations, called the Industrial Internet Consortium, focuses on. However, in the definitions and key elements of the Industrial Internet (more about them here) we see the more holistic picture of 1) connected devices (in the illustration below, machines), 2) data and meaning (advanced analytics), and 3) people and innovation/operations/outcomes (people at work).
The Internet of Everything: focus on the essence of IoT
A second term, which we touched upon as well is the Internet of Everything.
Coined by Cisco, used by others such as Intel, but also looking at the more holistic perspective that is required. Why is it required? Because, if we look at the Internet of Things in the strictest possible sense of an IP-based decentralized network of uniquely identifiable things that are able to communicate (data), we only look at the essential technology dimension and if we look at it from the use case perspective (divided between consumer, industrial and anything in-between), we only look at the solutions.
When we talk about the Internet of Things on this site we most often mean the Internet of Everything, which Cisco defines as follows: “The Internet of Everything (IoE) brings together people, process, data, and things to make networked connections more relevant and valuable than ever before-turning information into actions that create new capabilities, richer experiences, and unprecedented economic opportunity for businesses, individuals, and countries.”
Internet of Things definitions in context
While definitions matter a lot, it’s important to remember that usually business people don’t talk about the Internet of Things to their bosses in the scope of their work and project plans. If they do, it’s best to stop it unless the CEO and CFO are IT experts.
Business execs often don’t even speak about the use cases in terms of more…terms, such as smart cities or smart grids. In the end, they know that they need to digitally transform, that the Internet of Things is a truly disruptive game-changer but their job is to solve challenges , innovate and optimize in function of activities and goals. Simply put: few LOB executives will try to sell an IoT project to the CEO and there aren’t that many that will try to convince the board or the CFO regarding the benefits of a smart metering project. But, to take the latter example, they will certainly succeed if they come up with a way to reduce costs, gain valuable insights, develop new revenue streams and increase customer satisfaction, for instance, certainly if they did the math.
More Internet of Things definitions
Looking for more definitions of the Internet of Things? Below is the promised list with over 20 more IoT definitions (some are at the same time obviously great resources to continue your IoT journey). Feel free to add a definition you prefer more!