Challenges ahead for the Internet of Things

Connecting IoT devices is now simple (except for toasters)
Connecting IoT devices is now simple (except for toasters)

One of the most popular blog posts I’ve written recently was about the Internet of Things and Insurance, in readiness for a panel at the Insurance Technology Congress 2015 event in September.

Since the blog post I’ve received some feedback asking about other aspects of IoT which I’ll cover here. Specifically they fall into two buckets – security, and more clarity around the definition.

Defining IoT

Like many areas of IT, one could argue that the IoT has already been around for decades, but now it’s receiving more market awareness.

At the 1989 Interop conference, Dan Lynch and others created the first Internet Toaster which was connected to the Internet (via TCP/IP) and could be controlled (well, the power was controlled) remotely. It was a proof of concept that really anything could be on the Internet.

However it is only recently that a number of other factors have all joined together to make the IoT more successful:

  • A larger pool of Internet addresses
  • Cheaper computing
  • Faster wireless and cheaper mobile technologies
  • Cheaper payments systems – both to use and to integrate with
  • Easier technology ecosystem
  • The abundance of people who own a smartphone, enabling it to be used as a gateway

I think of the IoT as an ecosystem, or a mesh of technologies which can all easily integrate with one another. IoT is also a paradigm shift, of considering devices as open and able to communicate with each other rather than a closed system.

For instance, consider a GPS unit 10 years ago, compared to Google Maps running on a smartphone today. 10 years ago the GPS device was a clever paper maps replacement. Now, Google Maps provides proactive advice based on changing traffic conditions and the fuel cost of the journey. I would also expect to see routes based on favourable weather appearing soon. The point here, is taking data sensor feeds from across Internet devices offers an improved user experience.

The simplicity, through the maturity of the Internet is a key enabler for IoT. When Lynch connected the toaster to an SNMP server he wouldn’t have believed that 16 years later a much more complex service would be available through a graphical point and click interface.

Enter IFTTT (If This Than That) – a website which acts as a glue for services on the Internet. Historically IFTTT linked social networks together such as Instagram and Facebook to enable updates to both networks from one, or using Dropbox to save all photos posted on Twitter. For the last few months IFTTT have added services for IoT devices such as GE appliances, NEST and Philips.

Security

IoT requires a different mindset for many manufacturers, especially around security.

For the last few decades, car manufacturers reduced the maintenance required on cars in order for them to be cheaper to run. Most modern cars require annual servicing, which has been great until now – less hassle and costs for car owners.

However, a number of the Internet connected car systems have been exploited by hackers, and require immediate fixes. This isn’t a case of being able to modify the radio presets – hackers are able to remotely disable a vehicle’s brakes and even control the steering in some situations.

When these exploits are discovered, they need to be fixed rapidly. As banks have discovered in the last few years, car manufacturers are no longer in control of the messaging of when problems are found. These problems are now brought to the public’s attention via third parties, using social media and the online media quicker than they have historically been made available in a formal press release.

Security is likely to have a larger role to play once we integrate IoT into our healthcare system. The NHS have welcomed wearables as source of lifestyle tracking. Today, patients who see their doctor for some symptoms may be required to wear a heart rate monitor for a few days, and to report back to their doctor at the end of the period. In future, if the patient owns a smartwatch that data will be available immediately when the patients first sees their doctor, saving several days and a follow-up appointment.

We live in interesting times, on the cusp of IoT becoming truly useful across many industries. IoT has moved from controlling a toaster in 1989 to helping doctors in 2016. Once IoT has become ubiquitous we won’t know how we lived without certain devices and monitors.

NOTE: If the toaster story got you excited, you can buy a photographic print.

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