What is the Internet of Things (IoT)? One definition would be that it’s certainly an umbrella term for a broad range of technologies, applications and use cases as they are enabled by the connection of objects and devices with an IP address (Internet Protocol).
While we all at least have heard about the Internet of Things, often we don’t really realize what exactly is meant by it (lacking an IoT definition) and by related terms such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the Internet of Services, Consumer IoT, Industry 4.0, the Internet of Medical Things, the Internet of Everything and so forth.
Indeed: the Internet of Things is about much more than fitness trackers, smart home applications and connected vehicles. The keynote and interview videos in our IoT event guide 2017 clearly show that much. So, time for some definitions.
Table of Contents
- 1 Defining the Internet of Things as the next stage of the Internet
- 2 Internet of Things definitions: what IoT is not
- 3 Towards an Internet of Things definition: 7 characteristics
- 4 Defining the Internet of Things with a consumer part and an industrial/business segment
- 5 What is the Internet of Things: the answers
- 6 A list of Internet of Things definitions
- 7 More IoT-related definitions and terms
Defining the Internet of Things as the next stage of the Internet
In our exhaustive overview of the Internet of Things we look at the history of IoT, the applications across several industries, practical examples, benefits, risks, compliance challenges, security concerns, trends, research, strategic aspects and all the above mentioned terms in depth.
Here we cover the main Internet of Things definitions so it becomes clearer what we really mean when we speak about the Internet of Things. We also look at definitions of the main other related terms.
We could simply define the Internet of Things as the next stage in the Internet where things and objects with sensors are connected to the Internet so they can gather, send and get data, leading to smarter solutions. That’s how most of us see it. Wearables are connected and enable us to send and receive data, vehicles get connected, home appliances, industrial assets, street lights, you name it.
However, that’s just part of the story that looks at the what, rather than the why and how. If you look at the Internet of Things a bit more in depth you quickly notice that it’s part of something bigger as we’ll cover.
Note there is no universally agreed IoT definition although there is an ongoing project to build one as you can read here.
Internet of Things definitions: what IoT is not
As said, 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, depending on how you look at it. That’s why, as you will see in the definitions below there are several approaches and views.
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).
It’s not a coincidence that in these same markets (with manufacturing being the leading one), Internet of Things investments are the highest.
Other systems of connected devices that have existed since long before the Internet of Things as we know it today include machine-to-machine (M2M) networks, ATMs, point of sales systems and so forth.
In other words: not all connected devices are IoT-connected devices but all IoT-connected devices are connected devices. Moreover in the Internet of Things we use the Internet Protocol (IP), more specifically IPv6.
So, we only speak about the Internet of Things when ‘things’ (or better: endpoints) are uniquely addressable, using an IP address or Uniform Resource Identifier.
The Internet of Things is not a thing
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 or fog computing, IoT platform software and IoT connectivity approaches, etc.) which are needed to do something with IoT deployments.
It is clear that when we speak about the Internet of Things in the context of for instance fitness trackers this has little in common with the Internet of Things as it’s used in industrial settings such as manufacturing or connected logistics, to give a few Industrial Internet examples. That’s why people started segmenting various Internet of Things segments or started looking more at the various use cases.
Towards an Internet of Things definition: 7 characteristics
The Internet of Things can be defined by the various characteristics in the broader context. We see all of these characteristics coming back in most IoT definitions out there (further below is an overview with some of these IoT definitions).
There are 7 crucial IoT characteristics:
- Connectivity. This doesn’t need much further explanation. Devices, sensors, they need to be connected: to an item, to eachother, actuators, a process and to ‘the Internet’ or another network.
- Things. Anything that can be tagged or connected as such as it’s designed to be connected. From sensors and household appliances to tagged livestock. Devices can contain sensors or sensing materials can be attached to devices and items.
- Data. Data is the glue of the Internet of Things, the first step towards action and intelligence.
- Communication. Devices get connected so they can communicate data and this data can be analyzed.
- Intelligence. The aspect of intelligence as in the sensing capabilities in IoT devices and the intelligence gathered from data analytics (also artificial intelligence).
- Action. The consequence of intelligence. This can be manual action, action based upon debates regarding phenomena (for instance in climate change decisions) and automation, often the most important piece.
- Ecosystem. The place of the Internet of Things from a perspective of other technologies, communities, goals and the picture in which IoT fits. The Internet of Everything dimension and the platform dimension.
Defining the Internet of Things with a consumer part and an industrial/business segment
As the Internet of Things is an umbrella term and as such has no meaning since data and devices are inherently dumb and derive their meaning from the purpose, context and integration with processes, people and information systems for which they are designed, some prefer to use other terms.
This is why some organizations and individuals, for instance, rather talk about the Internet of Everything, while others opt to drop the term IoT alltogether and mention it in terms of specific use cases and contexts such as smart cities, smart metering, smart buildings, smart wearables, Industrial Internet or smart homes, all of course with their own meaning and, again, with more subdivisions.
Another, traditional way to look at it is by splitting IoT into a consumer and industrial context although that’s not the best approach ever either as it’s not as if there are two nicely separated ‘types’ of IoT.
Consumer Internet of Things definition (CIoT)
The Consumer Internet of Things is what almost everybody knows. It’s what the media talk 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 for consumer use (wearables are also used in healthcare and in factories, to name just two) 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.
A simple definition of the Consumer Internet of Things is all we need: the Internet of Things as it’s used for consumer applications and consumer-oriented services.
Typically, in Consumer IoT, 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 Consumer Internet of Things (CIoT)
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 a business matter. 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.The Industrial IoT
What is the Internet of Things: the answers
So, what is the Internet of Things then? Do we have enough elements for a definition?
Definition of IoT 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), 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.
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 key components of an Internet of Things deployment from a high-end perspective are:
- The endpoint environment (sensing and data capture, in some cases analysis at the edge).
- Connectivity within the endpoint environment where data from sensors and actuators are transmitted and received in hubs.
- Connection with the cloud and applications, in some cases middleware, called IoT platforms.
- The actual outcomes in the form of the end customer application and/or process integration/automation and/or services.
Defining the Internet of Things – information, interaction, transaction and action
The most simple and straightforward IoT definition starts from looking at the essence of the Internet which is a global network, characterized by information, interaction and transaction. Communication is part of interaction, with information as its enabler.
Originally, it presented information and linked information, obviously with a human purpose. Soon interaction and transaction, human and automated, were added, with the end goal remaining human but with an additional touch of processes. The glue of these many forms of interaction, transaction, communication, processes and so forth remained information which is added, created, shared, consumed and used to fulfil a task. With the Internet of Things another layer is added but in the end it again is about information and how it is used for human goals and automation, with a focus on moving from data to actionable intelligence and in the end transaction, interaction etc. So, in the end it’s all about data and what we do with it.
On our Internet of Things page we defined the Internet of Things as follows: “The Internet of Things is the interconnection of physical devices with embedded sensing and communication possibilities, including sensors and actuators, and of physical endpoints that consist of, among others tags, sensors, actuators, controllers and communication devices get attached to objects (from livestock to crops and industrial assets), and are connected with the Internet through uniquely identifiable IP addresses; whereby data is gathered and communicated via the embedded electronics and software, additional connectivity technologies and the cloud, networks or IoT platforms. The Internet of Things is an additional layer of information, interaction, transaction and action which is added to the Internet thanks to devices, equiped with data sensing, analysis and communication capabilities, using Internet protocols. The Internet of Things further bridges digital and physical realities and powers information-driven automation and improvements on the level of business, society and people’s lives”.
We know: it’s a long definition (and there is even more). But let’s look at how others define IoT.
A list of Internet of Things definitions
Probably there is a definition you like better. Below is a list with IoT definitions as we found them across the Web in an ever-changing IoT reality.
So, we had the Internet of Things, the Consumer IoT and the Industrial Internet of Things. What about all those other terms we mentioned?
The Industrial Internet: a definition
A term you might have heard is the Industrial Internet, period. So, not the Industrial Internet of Things we’ve mentioned earlier.
The Industrial Internet is a term that was first used by GE, a big player in the industry and founder of the Industrial Internet Consortium. The definition of the Industrial Internet by GE: “the convergence of the global industrial system with the power of advanced computing, analytics, low-cost sensing and new levels of connectivity permitted by the internet”. So, it’s a bit more than the Industrial Internet of Things but IIoT quite obviously plays a key role in it.More about the Industrial Internet
Definition of the Internet of Everything
We’ve mentioned the Internet of Everything or IoE before. This is a term coined by Cisco that wants to go beyond the connected things aspect and also, among others, includes people and processes in the equation.
We wrote a pretty in-depth overview of the Internet of Everything. The definition of IoE has changed somewhat over the years but here is the definition of the Internet of Everything by Cisco: “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”.More about the Internet of Everything
Definition cyber-physical systems and Industry 4.0
Another term is Industry 4.0. Although it is more than about the (Industrial) Internet of Things and has more in common with GE’s Industrial Internet, the Internet of Things plays a major role in it.
A building block of Industry 4.0 are the so-called cyber-physical systems and here many people say it is the same as the Industrial Internet of Things. However, it is not, even if it increasingly used interchangeably with Industrial IoT.
Industry 4.0, just like the Industrial Internet comes from the industrial market but, whereas the latter was coined by GE, Industry 4.0 comes from the German industry.
We defined Industry 4.0 in two ways. Here is one of our Industry 4.0 definitions: “The information-intensive transformation of manufacturing in a connected environment of data, people, processes, services, systems and production assets with the generation, leverage and utilization of actionable information as a way and means to realize the smart factory and new manufacturing ecosystems”.
More about Industry 4.0, Industry 4.0 definitions (including a list of Industry 4.0 definitions of others) and the definition of cyber-physical systems via the button below.Industry 4.0 and cyber-physical systems
Defining the Internet of Services (IoS)
Remember how many are moving away from the term Internet of Things as it focuses to much on the things and technologies?
Here is a reality of the Internet of Things (in fact it’s also an IoT trend): in the end what matters are the services. Moreover, companies use the Internet of Things to deploy new services and to move to as-a-service models.
That’s where the Internet of Services comes in. The term Internet of Services is mainly used in a context of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet but it certainly goes for other areas too, as in the end the outcome of an IoT project or even consumer application is a service.
The term Internet of Services has been used by several organizations but sometimes in slightly different contexts. The EU uses it, German Industry 4.0 pioneer SAP uses it, research companies use it and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has published a paper mentioning it.
Yet, none of them really defined the term. However, we’re sure you get the meaning.
Defining the Internet of Robotic Things
Heard about the Internet of Robotic Things (IoRT)? If you didn’t now you have.
The term Internet of Robotic Things was coined by ABI Research. It’s more than a buzzword and it shows how views on what the Internet of Things is and can do evolve.
All too often we look at the possibilities of the Internet of Things from this rather passive perspective where data from physical objects enable services, insights and so forth.
Although data is critical and we’ve mentioned it a loT and although all these services, insights and so on have tremendous possibilities, there is more. IoT is not a one-way street, let’s be clear. However, so far we didn’t use IoT components and analytical functions, as well as integration possibilities with other systems, enabling physical devices to physically and (semi-)autonomously act THAT much. Well, the Internet of Robotic Things is about these aspects in a context of robots (e.g. the robotic platforms Amazon uses in its logistics).
ABI Research defined IoRT as follows: the incorporation of the robotics aspect into the wider IoT.More about the Internet of Robotic Things
More Internet of XYZ terms
There are plenty of other variations on the same themes we’ve defined here. The Internet of Things, Data and Services (IoTDS) is a typical term of Industry 4.0. Some people talk about the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), some talk about the Internet of Things and Services (IoTS) and an industrial company, ABB, coined a term, Internet of Things, Services and People (IoTSP).
And there even more than the ones we mentioned. Believe us: there will pop up more new terms as the Internet of Things matures and keeps growing (faster and faster) in practice.
As usual, it’s not that much all the terms, let alone technologies that matter, it’s how and why the Internet of Things as that big umbrella term is used in practice. And then “it” just becomes part of a broader reality, both with regards to the bigger technology picture and the bigger use case and usage picture.
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