The Internet of Things (IoT) concept is getting a lot of exposure these days but it’s hardly a new one. In fact the Informer was surprised to discover the term was coined back in 1999 and that the first such device was created in 1990 by an MIT graduate when he found a way to switch on his toaster over the internet.
So began a quarter of a century of gratuitously sticking processors and modems into previously ‘dumb’ devices that had been quite happily getting on with their single functions such as cleaning things or changing their temperature.
The year after IoT was coined Korean electronics giant LG got the ball rolling with the first internet fridge, which had two 15-inch screens on it and cost nearly six grand. While it presumably sold very few, the cliché genie was out of the bottle and the Internet Digital DIOS Refrigerator has been emblematic of IoT ever since.
Given that 2000 was the height of the dotcom speculative bubble, when the value of mundane things went through the roof as soon as they were presented online, LG can be forgiven its optimistic exuberance. It’s hard to imagine, 15 years down the line, quite how limitless the possibilities of the internet must have seemed. Merely by launching a website you suddenly had access to the entire world.
In practice, as any online writer will confirm, just because the whole world can access your stuff it doesn’t mean they will. And the thing about can’t miss business opportunities is that they tend to be quite popular, so while you can sell to the whole world you also compete with it.
In spite of the harsh lessons of the dotcom bubble there seems to be a not dissimilar land-grab going on around IoT right now, with the likes of Apple, Samsung, Huawei and, this week, Google all trying to position themselves at the centre of this Next Big Thing.
While evangelizing away about how great it’s going to be when everything’s connected, one Google exec at the company’s developer conference shared a utopia when, upon downloading a recipe onto your phone, your oven automatically turns itself on to the required temperature. Presumably this is just the beginning and one day a mere prod of a touchscreen will initiate a cascade of frenzied robotic activity as your household appliances spring into collective action like a scene from Fantasia, desperate to solve your every first world problem.
Like any self-respecting buzzword, IoT is nice and vague so can be used to describe almost anything. While the headlines will be dominated by self-aware consumer devices that empathetically cater to needs you didn’t even realise you had, serious business people are quietly getting on with doing clever things with sensors and big data to make their operations more efficient than ever.
The appeal of IoT to the broader tech industry lies in new ways to assault the beleaguered consumer with further opportunities to part with their hard-earned cash. Now buying a phone/tablet/PC is just the beginning because, we’re told, you need to connect them to you house, car and body. The ongoing challenge for these tech companies, however, is that we’re not all rabid control freaks, offended by chaos and randomness, and we quite like doing a few things for ourselves.