Editor’s note: Tom Snyder, executive director of rapidly growing Raleigh-based RIoT and a thought leader in the emerging Internet of Things, is the newest columnist to join WRAL TechWire’s list of top drawer contributors. “Datafication Nation” premiers today. His columns will be part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package.
RALEIGH – The tech industry is constantly evolving, and with it, the terminology used to describe new technologies. At the speed that tech develops and is replaced, some buzzwords fail to survive the hype cycle, while others have long-term impact. We are in the middle of one of the most significant re-understandings of technology definitions since the World Wide Web in the early 1990’s.
In 1989, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while working at CERN. The purpose was to enable rapid sharing of data between different computers. Around the same time, computers were getting connected to each other in the US through a defense project, Arpanet, which later spawned the Internet. In the early days of the internet, the terms “world wide web” and “internet” were often used interchangeably. However, as we came to understand the underlying technologies that made these two things possible, it became clear that they were not the same thing. The world wide web was a collection of interconnected documents and web pages hosted on servers, accessible through a browser, whereas the internet was the underlying infrastructure that allowed these documents to be exchanged. Today the internet enables everything from search to e-commerce to the new wave of generative AI tools. WWW is of historical importance, but not front of mind.
Today, we are seeing a similar phenomenon with the term “Internet of Things” (IoT). IoT refers to a network of physical devices that are embedded with sensors, software, and connectivity, enabling them to connect, exchange and analyze data, leading to automation. However, like the world wide web, the term IoT is proving to be a transient term that is evolving as we better understand the technologies and applications that make it possible.
When the term IoT gained widespread popularity between 2010 and 2014, people fixated on the “Things.” Sensors translate our physical world into digital signals, and fundamentally, sensors are deployed in hardware. Anything that got labeled as “smart” – phones, watches, homes, cars, farms, cities – was something that suddenly had connected sensors collecting data. The term IoT had a strong association with electrical hardware.
In reality, IoT systems are much more than just hardware. To achieve autonomy, IoT systems have connectivity that enables data exchange between devices, software to enable automation and actuate response and visualization tools to allow humans to remain “in the loop.” Many of the component technologies of an IoT system are the big buzzwords of today. Examples include LoRa, 5G and CBRS (connectivity); ML/AI, Blockchain, Edge Computing (analytics); Dashboards, AR/VR/XR (visualization)
With the proliferation of connected devices coupled to advanced analytics and real-time data visualization, IoT is an increasingly important part of our lives. We are seeing important automation in healthcare, transportation, agriculture and the energy grid. But it is not yet clear whether IoT is the descriptor that ideally captures the underlying infrastructure that shifts us from the Information Age (legacy data, searchable via the Internet) to the Data Economy (real-time data, automated with AI).
Some companies are betting on the term “Metaverse” to be that modern equivalent to “Internet” of the last 30 years. There are compelling parallels, as the Metaverse is in the early stages of building infrastructure-level tools to enable real-time digital representation of the real world. Industry has been leveraging Digital Twin technology for about a decade already. I personally doubt this will be the term that sticks (mainly because a few competing tool sets are being built by a few private tech companies, rather than as an open standard, but that’s a topic for a future article).
Maybe IoT is eventually seen as the umbrella term, or perhaps it will fade into history like WWW. I like the term “Data Economy,” but haven’t seen too much traction around that term yet. I do think we will eventually retire the term “smart” and our “smart homes” will simply go back to being “homes” again. But no matter the buzzword, there is no question that we are in the early days of seeing real-time, data-driven automation across every industry sector.