Requirement capture and imagination play crucial roles in the creation of new technology or new uses for existing technology. Exciting ideas generate discussions that can lead to pragmatic steps to realize the original vision. The largely nascent Internet of Things (IoT) is a perfect example of this familiar chain of events.

At some point, however, concepts under consideration must acquire a common language. Terms of art, and technology, must emerge. Definitions matter, even if applications and use cases diverge. This is particularly true of the IoT, which means myriad things and claims stakeholders in innumerable vertical markets. Technical standards – the foundation for economies of scale and, therefore, successful markets – can only be written when stakeholders agree on what they’re talking about.

The IoT community is also particularly active and has produced, and still is producing, a number of definitions, concepts, guidelines and different architectures. Each of these definitions stems from experiences and assets owned or controlled by the proponents. This has produced a large set of different definitions of IoT and a number of differentiations between IoT, Cyber Physical Systems (CPS), Machine-to-Machine (M2M) technologies and the like. There is a concomitant need to collect information and aggregate it, with the goal of finding commonalities in such a diverse and divergent realm. 

That is the purpose behind an interactive essay, published by the IEEE IoT, titled, “Towards a Definition of the Internet of Things (IoT).” The essay is an attempt to articulate a working, albeit evolving, definition of the IoT by first documenting how various stakeholders approach and define it.

The IEEE IoT Initiative published the essay in an interactive forum that in just weeks has seen significant contributions to the discussion of how to define IoT. (More on those comments below.) Members of the IEEE IoT Technical Community are invited to view and provide input and comment on the essay and its definitions. And we extend an open invitation to all readers to join the Technical Community (at no cost), which is required to comment on the essay to “help change the world.” The future of IoT could be influenced by your interest. Benefits of the IEEE IoT Technical Community include participation in the IoT Definitions Document and the IEEE IoT Scenarios program. Members of the IEEE IoT Technical Community also receive the IEEE IoT Newsletter, and regular updates on IoT from the IEEE IoT Initiative.

Understandably, interest in the IoT runs high and defining this multi-faceted concept is a work in progress. In addition, the definition can evolve as a consequence of a technical sector running fast towards a mass deployment and usage of early technologies. There is a crucial need to keep the “definition” aligned with current experiences and recent advancements. This definition requires a continuous update of recent results and activities. This is why the document is defined as interactive. It will try to grasp and represent the newest results and activities relating to IoT.

Certainly that’s one very good reason why ECN readers – the designers of electronic components – should care about defining IoT and joining the new global community coalescing around it. But the matter goes deeper.

If realized, IoT will offer a pervasive network of connected people, organizations, devices and data. The stakeholders now involved in developing products and services for such a network will need to originate or at the very least keep pace with the thinking that guides IoT’s development.

Imagine a global network that provides efficiencies, improved productivity, forecasting and future innovation in our everyday lives, as well as countless industry verticals! The idea is powerful and it underscores the need to ensure that stakeholders are talking about the same thing as they go about developing the technologies and applications that will enable it. Definitions and terms of art are important pillars that support meaningful dialogue. Given the interactive, online discussion that has followed publication of “Towards a Definition of the Internet of Things (IoT),” it’s clear that stakeholders are still working towards a common basis for discussions that can move IoT-supporting technologies from concept to market.

Here’s a peek at the essay’s content:

The paper begins with a literature survey that documents what various commercial enterprises, academic institutions, governments and non-governmental organizations have said publicly on the topic. This approach enables the reader to link an organization’s raison d’être, its drivers and perspectives, with its definition of IoT. Because IoT tends to sound like an all-encompassing concept, the essay also spends valuable time defining what IoT is not.  

The paper’s working definition of IoT encompasses the features and definitions inherent in an IoT system in both low-complexity and large environments (e.g., systems spanning over several administrative domains). While the former might be thought of as, say, a residence, the latter is to be seen as networks of smart objects. The definition can be summarized thus in the essay:

“[The] Internet of Things [concept] envisions a self-configuring, adaptive, complex network that interconnects ‘things’ to the Internet through the use of standard communications protocols. The interconnected things have physical or virtual representation in the digital world, sensing/actuating capability, a programmability feature and are uniquely identifiable. The representation contains information including the thing’s identity, status, location or any other business, social or privately relevant information. The things offer services, with or without human intervention, through the exploitation of unique identification, data capture and communication and actuation capability. The service is exploited through the use of intelligent interfaces and is made available anywhere, anytime and for anything, taking security into consideration.”

Perhaps this working definition will whet readers’ appetites to join the discussion. As the essay’s literature review makes clear, IoT definitions currently are as diverse as the gamut of stakeholders. The interactive dialogue generated so far by the essay’s publication underscores this point. Here is a sampling of the comments on the IEEE IoT Technical Community forum:

  • Add more emphasis on wireless communications and their technical complexities.
  • Emphasize how IoT applications will help people live better lives, which is too often overlooked by technologists.
  • More needed on legal perspectives and data ownership, access, privacy and destruction.
  • More discussion needed on the ethics, security and responsibility regarding unintended consequences, particularly relating to the use of non-human agents.
  • Take a broader view of commercial players, as many innovators aren’t mentioned.
  •  Add more focus on Big Data and its IoT-related implications.
  • Add more recent papers to the literature coverage, especially on the integration of IoT with existing communication networks.
  • More emphasis is needed on how standards can be winnowed to the essentials for various apps.

Readers are encouraged to join the IEEE IoT Technical Community and post questions and comments on the essay. The next iteration of the “Towards a Definition …” essay will incorporate the comments received to date and the revision process will continue as the online discussion evolves.