What is a ‘thing’ in Internet of Things (IOT)

Dictionary definition graphic of the word 'thing'When we talk about Internet of Things (IoT), most people assume it to be an intelligent form of Machine-to-Machine (M2M). While in M2M we are talking about communication between a group of machines (not exclusively estricted to low data rate sensors though) or simply put, connectivity and content, IoT is thought of as an intelligent form of machine communications where cloud, context, collaboration and cognition all play a role.

What most people don’t seem to understand is that IoT is much bigger than all of the characteristics listed above. I have heard Peter Whale, Product Marketing Director at Iotic Labs speak at various events and have participated in rather interesting Twitter discussions with him about how a thing could be ‘anything you want to be a thing’. While this was difficult for me to articulate suitably, I recently came across a definition I really liked in Michael Miller’s book, ‘The Internet of Things: How Smart TVs, Smart Cars, Smart Homes, and Smart Cities are Changing the World’. In the book, he says:

Michael Miller, author of The Internet of Things

Image source: Amazon

There are many different type of devices that can be connected to the Internet of Things. A device can be something big and complex, like a car or a house. It can be something you use in everyday life, such as a golf club, or a printer, or a pair of sneakers. It can be something very, very small, such as a discrete sensor inside your car or house or golf club, a single part of a much larger and more complex device.

For that matter, what the IoT calls “things” don’t have to be actual physical things. A thing can be a piece of data – status information such as your location or room temperature – collected through separate general purpose device, such as a thermostat, smartphone or computer. Put another way, the physical thing itself doesn’t have to be in the IoT, although data about the thing must.

Know, though, that most IoT devices are simple sensors that monitor something happening nearby. These simple things are either record or transmit the information they gather across the network to some other device or service.

If we think about the above in simple terms, let’s say I have a next generation advanced eBook reader. The reason I call it next generation is because I want to show what’s possible, the current eBook readers are far from that.

I am sure we all agree that the eBook reader can be considered a thing. My eBook reader will have different books as compared to other people who may have exactly the same eBook reader. Herewe can consider the eBooks as things. My books give an indication of my tastes, preferences, hobbies, interests, etc. If we ignore any privacy concerns for the time being, my eBooks can be leveraged by advertisers to give me discounts, by companies to make my life simpler, by friends & family to get me presents and a whole lot of new possibilities, so these preferences could be considered a thing as well. If I highlight a definition or an explanation in a book maybe it can be one of the results the next time I search for the same thing on the Internet, and so my highlighting could also be considered a thing.

IoT may be used as a generic term but it already has endless possibilities. A correct definition will help us think much bigger, better and in the right direction. Let me know if you disagree.

Zahid Ghadialy, Technical Programme Manager at TechUK and CW board memberWritten by Zahid Ghadialy, Technical Programme Manager at techUK