The Internet is reaching every corner of the world. By 2020, the Internet is expected to have 7.6 billion users. That’s more than the entire current population of Earth! All thanks to the ever-expanding realm that is the Internet of Things (IoT).
What is the Internet of Things exactly and where did it come from?
In 1969, America landed on the moon. That same year, the ARPANET was born. The ARPANET was the Internet’s ancestor that implemented technologies like TCP/IP and packet switching, the foundation of the Internet. The Internet would not have seen worldwide exponential success if it wasn’t for the foundation the ARPANET laid down in the 60’s and 70’s.The ARPANET wasn’t the only computer network, it just happened to be the most widely used by academics and the military. There was also CYCLADES, Merit Network, Usenet, MPL and a few others. The problem was that all of these networks existed but they were isolated from each other. They were like cliques in a high school, they wouldn’t talk to each other. So, like in any cliché high school movie, what do you do to get those cliques to settle their differences and work together?
You create a setting where their cliques don’t matter and they have to adhere to certain rules so anyone, regardless of clique, can talk to each other. Ok, that’s not really how it happens in movies but that’s how it was done for the Internet. They created an internetwork (*HINT* that’s where Internet comes from) protocol that standardized the way hosts, or computers, could talk to each other. Even if you were part of the Merit Network and you wanted to talk to someone on the ARPANET, you could because you knew the protocol.
The Internet was born out of those fragmented ancestral networks that predate it. It was born out of the need to create a single unified network of networks. The Internet was fully realized in 1995 when it was opened for commercialization. Companies like Amazon and Ebay were born, establishing a platform for consumers to buy things at the click of a button. In 1995, 44 million people were online. Currently, there are 3.2 billion people online, that’s 72 times as many people as in 1995. It has revolutionized every aspect of communication and dominates almost every facet of modern life but there’s still room for growth.
A brief history of humans and communication:
Ever since humans arrived on the planet we have developed better ways of communicating or transmitting information. Modern language was the first key development, estimated at about 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. Then came the next big leap, writing (or written form), with the earliest discoveries of it at about 6,000 years ago. This step was huge! It was the first time humans were storing information outside of our own brains!
Writing went through many improvements since its inception but nothing was more revolutionary than the printing press, introduced in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg. This was the first time we saw that information could be widely available for the masses. Even though it took, roughly, 54,000 years to go from language to writing and another 4,500 years from writing to the wide distribution of information, the 575 years after 1440 would see great progress. However, it’s the last 186 years where the transmitting of information really had unprecedented growth.
The first time humans were able to deliver information over wires was in 1844 when Samuel Morse sent the first morse code telegraph message asking, “What hath God wrought?” From that moment on, the world was set to be covered in wires to deliver information across vast distances.
Next up, the telephone in 1876. The telephone was a great step forward as it simplified the delivering of messages, you no longer needed someone to transcribe and interpret your telegram. Now you could just talk into a receiver and the person on the other line could hear your voice. We were now able to transmit our voices over long distances but it was only for person-to-person communication. Then came the radio and radio broadcasting, which did to the telephone, what the printing press did to writing. It allowed our voices to reach the masses. Anyone was now able to hear the President’s voice without having to be in the same room. Throughout the 1920’s radio quickly spread and by 1935, 80% of U.S. households had a radio on which they could listen to news from around the world. Even then voice wasn’t enough; television appeared quickly and exploded past radio as the preferred form for information and entertainment.
All of these advances in information and communication were tremendous achievements. The only caveat to them is that they were all limited to the human brain. They were only as powerful as our own mental capacity. It wasn’t until computers arrived that we would be able to extrapolate some of our mental and information processing to a more powerful machine.
Internet of Things takes shape:
The commercial Internet we know today wasn’t born until 1995, mobile Internet didn’t become popular until the iPhone launched in 2007, and the term ‘Internet of Things’ wasn’t introduced until 1999 yet, the idea of devices that collect information and are able to deliver it across great distances, is a centuries old idea. Many great minds predicted a “wireless” network that would allow for the processing and sharing of information across the globe. In 1926, the great Nikola Tesla, said,
“ When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain… and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
The Internet seems to be what Tesla was talking about…or was it? Let’s see, a brain uses sensory input to process information. It does this by collecting information through its many “sensors”: vision, auditory system, tactile, olfactory, taste, proprioception (sense of self), and the vestibular system (balance). From the information provided by these sensors the brain is able to process information in order to perform certain actions. For example, if you taste something sour, using the information received from your sense of taste, the brain knows that might be something that’s not good for you and it reacts accordingly. It takes the information registered and it acts upon it. This doesn’t sound too much like the Internet of today, but it does sound like the Internet of Things, where we use sensors to register information and then we act upon it.
The first Internet-connected device was a toaster, created by John Romkey in 1990, that could be turned on and off through the Internet.
It was a simple and novel idea but it showed what the Internet was capable of. It set the stage for the idea that the Internet was not just for computers. The Internet was clearly a medium for communication, but unlike the telephone, the message that could be transmitted through it was only limited to the imagination of the user and the capabilities of their computer. The idea for connecting ‘things’ to the Internet was very much alive in 1990 but computing power was still too big and too expensive for having everyone’s toaster connected to the Internet. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t make more ‘things’ that were connected to the Internet. We did. They just weren’t very good or useful. We also knew that eventually computing and processing power would be small and cheap enough for everyone’s toaster to be connected to the Internet. We just had to be patient and wait. Wait until now.
We have come a long way since John Romkey’s toaster. In 2011, the first commercially successful IoT product was introduced, the Nest Thermostat, selling over 1 million units. It’s not just simply a thermostat that you can adjust through the Internet, it is a smart device that learns from you and it is able to adjust itself to your needs. Nest Labs, the company that developed the Nest Thermostat, was acquired by Google in 2014 for $3.2 billion. This was one of the first validations that IoT was on the rise. First, selling over 1 million Nest Thermostats showed there is a market for IoT and second, Google’s acquisition of the company showed that large corporations were interested in the field.
Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, HP, Google, GE and many others have some sort of IoT platform established. There are also thousands of new IoT products being introduced each year and by the end of 2015 we expect to see 4.9 billion “things” connected to the Internet. With so many IoT related devices entering the market and so many different platforms that are available to choose from, how will our smart light bulbs be able to talk to our smart toasters? How will we ever be able to achieve Tesla’s grand vision of turning the Earth into a huge brain?
There’s still A LOT of room for growth and improvement in the IoT field. We are still years away from it becoming a regular part of everyone’s life. The idea of IoT and what it will eventually become is illustrated by a quote from the late Mark Weiser, chief scientist of Xerox PARC, where he says,
“… ubiquitous computing forces the computer to live out here in the world with people.”
This is exactly what IoT is doing, it’s taking that computational power, applying it to real, physical world things and allowing them to become “smart”. Yes, to people today a smart light bulb or a smart outlet might seem silly but once ubiquitous computing through IoT devices becomes commonplace and really cheap, it will seem silly NOT to have that smart light bulb.