What is the Internet of Things? And why do we have to ask?

By: Joe Tibbetts @joe_tibbetts
Published: Monday, September 22, 2014 - 11:01 GMT Jump to Comments

Businesses that fail to plan for the changes that the Internet of Things will bring to our lives and our business practices are taking unnecessary risks.

A week ago I gave a conference presentation to the owners and senior managers of around a hundred high end manufacturing companies. The companies ranged in size from billion dollar turnover multinationals to small, UK, advanced engineering companies turning over a couple of million pounds a year. 

The title of my presentation was The Internet of Things and The End of Work. It seemed to go well. The audience stayed awake, there were questions, the applause seemed genuine and a small group gathered in the bar afterwards to continue the conversation.

It could have been a disaster, however, for I almost forgot to ask for a show of hands at the beginning of my talk to assess how many people in the room understood what the phrase "the internet of things" meant.  

I did, however, remember - and when I asked the question, out of an audience of about 130, not one single hand went up.

Put simply the ‘Internet of Things’ refers to a process or system whereby a thing communicates with another thing, via the internet and some action occurs as a result of that communication either automatically or by persuading a person to take an action.

A common example is where a sensor in my fridge (the first thing) is activated when the contents of the milk bottle are getting low and a message is sent, via the internet, to my online supermarket (the second thing, for there need be no human intervention in this communication) with the result that the next time I order my groceries online a litre of milk is already on the list.

Another, perhaps more telling, example is the rat poison box alert system. The millions of rat poison boxes distributed around the country have to be emptied of their dead contents. Leaving the boxes with a dead rat inside can cause real public health problems and also means that the rat trap is no longer functioning.

The old way of coping with this problem is for a person to visit each rat trap at regular intervals, say, once a week. This is less than clever. The traps that are full can stay full for a week. The traps that are empty are visited for no reason and all this costs money and means that full traps stay full for longer.

It is simple and cheap to fit a sensor in every rat poison box, one that will send a message via the internet to the computer of the company that employs the person who empties the boxes and for this computer to work out the most efficient route around the traps that actually need clearing, and for the operative to check this route on their mobile device as they are leaving each consecutive location to find, perhaps, that more traps have called in full and that now the optimum route has been rearranged.

Clever eh? Good for business, good for public health, good for the environment (fewer wasted car miles) and good for the economy.

Furthermore it is easy to see that some other organisations, doing something completely different, might look at the rat poison box system and think "we could adapt that for what we do," emptying bins for example. Or delivering care. Or fixing street lights. Or alerting the health services to a problem before it becomes an expensive, life threatening crisis. Or making deliveries to the high street. And so on.

Many cars know that parts are in danger of failing before they fail. How would it be if your garage could text you saying here are the available appointment slots to fix or replace the component that, your car has told us, is about to fail (when you are doing 82mph in the outside lane, in heavy traffic, on the M1). And we already have the part in stock so we can fit it while you wait.

My audience of high end manufacturers were trying to tell me something. They were intelligent and technically minded leaders in their own business communities. And they had no idea what I was talking about when I used the words "The Internet of Things".

National government agencies, bureaucracies, businesses, university research departments and some parts of the third sector are costing the public and the private purse billions of pounds a year by enthusiastically developing the internet of things and failing to keep the leaders, the opinion formers, the decision makers up to speed with what it's all about.

For decades those of us who work in "communications" have bemoaned the fact that communication is all too often an after thought, a bolt-on, when it should be among the first things to be considered. I ought to be depressed by my charming but ill-informed audience. But miss-placed optimism keeps me going.

The end of work? That's another story.

In November I will chair an Information Daily AnswerTime®, an expert panel and a studio audience in a 25 minute WebTV programme examining the ways The Internet of Things will change our businesses. If you are interested in being in the audience at the recording of the Internet of Things AnswerTime® please email 

Joe Tibbetts is the publisher of The Information Daily and Advanced Engineering Online. He is a founding partner in Boilerhouse Creative Communications and has designed and delivered communications programmes for BP, NHS, Cisco, NASA, Osaka Gas and the Hook Norton Brewery. He is a regular contributor to a wide range of online publications and experienced conference speaker.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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