The ABCs of the Internet of Things7

You've heard the term and probably read stories about smart homes where the toaster talks to the smoke detector. But what makes it all connect? When will it become mainstream, and will it work? These frequently asked questions help explain it all.

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Security researchers imagine problems, such as the connected toilet, demonstrated at a recent Black Hat conference, which flushed and closed its lid repeatedly. Hackers could create havoc by turning appliances and HVAC systems on and off. Baby monitors have been successfully taken over by outsiders. One advantage that IoT security may have is it's still in its early stages, and the security community has a chance to build IoT systems with a strong measure of protection. Cisco is fishing around for ideas. The company is running a contest (with a June 17 submission deadline) with $300,000 in prize money for ideas for securing the IoT.

When will the Internet of Things be ready for prime time?

Vendors will be sorting out the various protocols and technologies for years. Consumers are curious, perhaps, but sensors and hubs for the home aren't flying off the shelves. There are real IoT uses today, especially for home monitoring and security. For now, the big users of sensor networks and remote intelligence gathering are businesses and governments.

Governments are deploying sensors to alert them to failed street lights, leaks in water systems and full trash cans. Sensors will likely have a major role in traffic control, forest fire and landslide detection. Remote sensing is already mainstream in many industries, office buildings and in the energy supply.

It's the consumer applications that get the most attention because they involve almost every industry and platform: health systems, home energy use, hardware, home building, electronics and the entire category of wearables, including clothing. Even plumbers will have to be aware of the IoT because of connected shut-off valves. But no one is going to stand in line for the latest smart refrigerator. It isn't the next iPad. The IoT rollout will be slow and will occur over many years, as appliances are replaced and home electrical systems are upgraded with smart devices.

What's the worst case scenario?

That a true coordination between multiple devices never comes to pass. Vendors, initially, will build islands, closed IoT environments that only work with their products and those made by selected partners. Privacy protections may be treated loosely, with users forced to opt out if they don't want their home turned into a giant spy cam for marketers.

We haven't even mentioned things like Google Glass. Imagine a scenario where people agree to share live streams as part of a Neighborhood Block Watch. A surveillance state may arrive on a flood of good intentions. But the IoT has potential to make life more efficient, safer, healthier and environmentally friendly.

In particular, people who install solar energy systems and use net metering, essentially selling surplus energy back to the utility, will have powerful reasons to install aware and connected systems. But whether these systems can work together will depend on the willingness of vendors to make their products connectable. There is no vendor large enough to control the IoT, but there are vendors large enough to make a mess of it.

This story, "The ABCs of the Internet of Things7" was originally published by Computerworld.

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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