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The Internet of Things will be more like a can of worms

21 Nov 2013
V3's Dan Robinson

Much has been written about the concept of the Internet of Things lately. And as with most other nascent technologies, there is a fair amount of hyperbole being spouted by self-styled industry experts and vendors alike, who all seem to vaguely sense that this could be the Next Big Thing and that there might be large sums of money to be made from it.

But let's take a step back and consider what exactly the Internet of Things is supposed to be all about. In many ways, it is just an extension of the way the internet works already, but with more and more devices beyond computers connected up. The idea is that the internet could be turned into a universal conduit to allow any and all devices to communicate together.

In fact, if you listen to some proponents of the idea, absolutely everything in the entire world will be connected, from kettles to clothing to street lights. We are often told that this will lead to some sort of global utopia, where lights come on when you enter a room, your shopping gets ordered and delivered automatically and your domestic appliances all work together in harmony to use less energy.

"The fridge might talk to the washing machine and they will together decide which will consume energy at that moment," said an EDF executive at the Teradata Partners conference covered by V3 in October.

Just how all of this is supposed to work is noticeably absent from any discussion of the Internet of Things, which I see as a fundamental problem with the notion. Anyone who has tried to pair up a Bluetooth peripheral to a computer or phone, or who has utterly failed to get their computer to stream video to their wireless-enabled TV, will know that getting two or more devices talking to each other can be a frustrating and time-consuming process.

Stories about consumers being unable to even set the time on domestic appliances such as video players have passed into urban legend, yet we are expected to believe that these same users will be able to configure network settings, privacy controls and security policies for their washing machine, fridge and TV? The potential mess doesn't bear thinking about.

And just who will ultimately have control over the connected devices in your home? It has been suggested during related discussions about smart metering in the UK that the power companies would be able to remotely shut off appliances in homes to save energy during times of peak demand. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm not at all comfortable with the idea of the electricity company being able to turn off devices in my house when it suits them.

Then there is the question of security. Having all these devices connected to the public internet opens up a Pandora's Box of horrendous possibilities. You only have to consider the havoc wreaked by malware such as the Stuxnet worm to imagine what could happen if every electronic device is exposed via the internet for hackers to work away at.

Did I mention privacy? Imagine what information could be gleaned about you when data could be surreptitiously gathered from every device you own. Your central heating status and which lights are on in your house could track when you are at home and even which room you are in, not to mention whether your TV is on and what content you like to watch. The surveillance possibilities go far beyond the privacy violations exposed as part of the PRISM spying scandal.

But all of this is conjecture at the moment, and may not even be feasible, let alone desirable. For now, the most immediate application for the Internet of Things is in gathering data from networks of sensors for analysis. Applications such as measuring traffic flow or temperature are fairly simple to implement and do not call for complex configurations or too much intelligence in the nodes, which only really have to feed data back to a central point.

However, we are clearly at a very early stage in the development of the Internet of Things, and who knows where it could ultimately lead? After all, the internet itself started out as a decentralised way to allow US military computers to exchange information, and its inventors could hardly have foreseen today's highly connected world.

But it has taken about 50 years to get from the first beginnings of the internet to where we are today. Don't expect the Internet of Things, which is going to be vastly more complicated, to be delivered tomorrow, or next week, or even next year.

For more on the Internet of Things, see the main feature in the November 2013 edition of the V3 Tablet App. The question of IoT is also our the theme of our home page poll.

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Daniel Robinson

Daniel Robinson is technology editor at V3, and has been working as a technology journalist for over two decades. Dan has served on a number of publications including PC Direct and enterprise news publication IT Week. Areas of coverage include desktops, laptops, smartphones, enterprise mobility, storage, networks, servers, microprocessors, virtualisation and cloud computing.

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