The IoT, Whatever It Is, Is Here

In computer circles and, in general, most digital realms, there is something called exponential growth, or sometimes Moore’s Law. Basically, it predicts that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit will double every couple of years. There are those who have questioned, rightly so, whether this rate of growth is sustainable indefinitely. Logically, one would think not, and recent progress would seem to bear that skepticism out. Personally, I think a slowing of growth might be good to give everyone a chance to catch their collective breath.

Nevertheless, the term seems to apply generally to many facets of technological and digital development. In fact, the concept has been employed to describe the driving force behind not only technological change but social change, productivity, and economic growth. Something of that sort clearly is going on in the lighting industry. LEDs were big news a few years ago, but at the last LightFair the buzz was all about controls and connectivity. It still is, but in my recent conversations with industry insiders, the term Internet of Things came up repeatedly.

One problem with this exponential growth thing is that we have to come up with new names—or acronyms—to describe all of this new stuff. One might say there’s been exponential growth in inexplicable and misunderstood terms used to describe what are often complex concepts.

I suppose this might have always been the case. When movable type was invented and pages were fastened together to form a book, were there discussions about what constituted a book? Did it have to have a minimum number of pages? A hard cover? Illustrations or no illustrations? Presumably all of the above. Different terminology evolved: pamphlet, comic book, hardcover, paperback, magazine, to name just a few. They all are composed of paper and bound together by different technologies, but terms have evolved to differentiate them. That’s the nature of language.

Computer-speak and digital dogma, being relatively new, seem to be suffering the same language-based growing pains. Take the Internet of Things, for example. What does that even mean? What things are those? Everything? One imagines the internet (lower case per the recent edict by the Associated Press) as an amorphous cloud (cloud computing) that attracts things randomly by static cling or some mysterious force understood only by geeks. Things like lost socks perhaps?

Matter of fact, that’s pretty much what the internet does. It attracts all sorts of things (information), some of it outdated, some of it wrong, some of it garbled or just plain crazy. That’s what makes one wary of the Internet of Things concept. Especially when some of the initial breathless notions made little or no sense. What is the point of having one’s household appliances talk to one another? It is completely useless to have a toaster talking to a washer or dryer, or any other appliance, person, or thing. A refrigerator that beams a photo of its contents to your potentially explosive smartphone is beyond ridiculous. If you can’t plan your shopping any better than that, perhaps you need to be in some sort of custodial-care facility.

OK, these excesses may just be exuberant, out-of-the-box thinking that will evolve into unimagined, useful things some day. You can’t blame people for trying stuff just because they can.

But to the point, the terms we use to describe all this new stuff sometimes are less than ideal. I came across an article in a respected magazine that justly ridiculed “smart devices” that “dupe” consumers. As an example, the writer held up a propane-tank app that connects to your smartphone to measure the contents of the tank that supplies your outdoor grill. The author correctly points out that there are simpler and cheaper ways to measure the contents of that tank. While I know nothing of outdoor gas grilling, I tend to agree. I would ask the additional question: Why do not the manufacturers build a simple indicator into their appliances that would measure the fuel level? How hard would that be? Automobiles have had such a device for years now. (Yeah, yeah, measuring a gas isn’t the same a measuring a liquid, etc.)

That aside, the author’s mistake, in my mind, is saying that this app exemplifies the Internet of Things. I don’t think so. It is an example of the Internet of A Thing. Only one thing is connected here, and that thing isn’t connected to anything else. Just like the refrigerator. One thing. The Internet of Things, however, is about at least several things connected, sharing information, and interacting. Those things, by the way, are not random things, but things that are related and have some logical reason to interact. Folks in the lighting industry seem to have grasped this concept. They may be onto something. Who knows where it will lead? –

Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

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