Smart locks, smart
thermostats, smart cars — you’ve probably heard some of these terms
lately, and you’re going to hear them even more as the year goes on.
But what are these things exactly — and what makes them so smart?
These devices are all part of an emerging category called the Internet
of Things, or IoT for short. At its very basic level, IoT refers to
the connection of everyday objects to the Internet and to one another,
with the goal being to provide users with smarter, more efficient
experiences. Some recent examples of IoT products include the Nest
Protect smoke detector and August door locks.
But as with any new technology, IoT can be confusing and intimidating
for the average consumer, especially as debates swirl around
standardization, security and privacy, and company after company piles
on to this fast-growing trend. I’ve compiled an FAQ on IoT to better
explain how it works, how these products are being used in the real
world, and some of the issues and challenges facing the category.
I spoke with a number of companies and groups working on IoT products
and standards, including Apple, SmartThings, the Internet of Things
Consortium, AllSeen Alliance, the Open Interconnect Consortium and the
What exactly is the
Internet of Things?
My colleague Walt Mossberg gave a great, succinct overview of IoT when
he described it this way: “The broad idea behind these buzzwords is
that a whole constellation of inanimate objects is being designed with
built-in wireless connectivity, so that they can be monitored,
controlled and linked over the Internet via a mobile app.”
The types of objects span a wide range of categories, from wearables
to light bulbs to home appliances (like the coffee maker, washing
machine, and even your car) — really, anything. IoT is also being
applied to vertical markets like the medical and health-care industry
and to transportation systems.
Okay, I think I get it, but can
you give me an example of how it’s being used today, and how does this
actually make things easier for me?
One of the better-known
examples is the Nest thermostat. This Wi-Fi-connected thermostat
allows you to remotely adjust the temperature via your mobile device
and also learns your behavioral patterns to create a
The potential value is that you can save money on your utility bill by
being able to remotely turn off your air conditioner, which you forgot
to do before leaving the house. There’s also a convenience factor.
Nest can remember that you like to turn down the temperature before
going to bed, and can automatically do that for you at a set time.
Another company, SmartThings, which Samsung acquired in August, offers
various sensors and smart-home kits that can monitor things like who
is coming in and out of your house and can alert you to potential
water leaks, to give homeowners peace of mind.
As the IoT category expands and the products become more
sophisticated, one can envision a scenario where your fitness tracker
detects that you’ve fallen asleep and then automatically turns off
your TV and lights. Or, before hitting the road, your car could pull
up your work calendar and automatically provide the best route to your
meeting, or send a note to relevant parties if you’re running late.
On a broader scale, it is being used by cities to monitor things like
the number of available parking spaces, air and water quality, and
How does IoT work?
I’ll try not to get too
technical here. First, there’s the underlying technology, the various
wireless radios that allow these devices to connect to the Internet
and to each other. These include more familiar standards like Wi-Fi,
low-energy Bluetooth, NFC and RFID, and some that you’ve probably
haven’t heard of, like ZigBee, Z-Wave and 6LoWPAN (have your eyes
glazed over yet?).
Then there are the things
themselves, whether they’re motion sensors, door locks or light bulbs.
In some cases, there may also be a central hub that allows different
devices to connect to one another.
Finally, there are cloud services, which enable the collection and
analysis of data so people can see what’s going on and take action via
their mobile apps.
What companies are
working on IoT?
At this point, the easier
question might be who isn’t working on an IoT product. Big names like
Samsung, LG, Apple, Google, Lowe’s and Philips are all working on
connected devices, as are many smaller companies and startups.
Research group Gartner predicts that 4.9 billion connected devices
will be in use this year, and the number will reach 25 billion by
So, can all IoT devices
talk to each other?
This is where things get a little more complicated. With so many
companies working on different products, technologies and platforms,
making all these devices communicate with each other is no small feat
— seamless overall compatibility likely won’t happen.
Several groups are working to create an open standard that would allow
interoperability among the various products. Among them are the
AllSeen Alliance, whose members include Qualcomm, LG, Microsoft,
Panasonic and Sony; and the Open Interconnect Consortium, which has
the support of Intel, Cisco, GE, Samsung and HP.
While their end goal is the same, there are some differences to
overcome. For example, the OIC says the AllSeen Alliance doesn’t do
enough in the areas of security and intellectual property protection.
The AllSeen Alliance says that these issues have not been a problem
for its more than 110 members.
It’s not clear how the standards battle will play out, though many
believe we’ll end up with three to four different standards rather
than a single winner (think iOS and Android).
In the meantime, one way consumers can get around the problem is by
getting a hub that supports multiple wireless technologies, such as
the one offered by SmartThings.
These products seem to be
collecting a lot of data. Should I be worried about security and
The various amounts of data collected by smart home devices, connected
cars and wearables have many people worried about the potential risk
of personal data getting into the wrong hands. The increased number of
access points also poses a security risk.
The Federal Trade Commission has expressed concerns, and has
recommended that companies take several precautions in order to
protect their customers. The FTC, however, doesn’t have the authority
to enforce regulations on IoT devices, so it’s unclear how many
companies will heed its advice.
Of the companies I’ve talked to, all said that security and privacy
were of the utmost importance. For example, Apple requires that
companies developing products for its HomeKit platform include
company also said it doesn’t collect any customer data related to
I’m digging the sound of
this IoT thing. Is now a good time to buy?
While the idea of IoT has been around for years, it’s just beginning
to enter the consumer space, and the category has yet to mature. But
there are good products out there. If you’re looking to buy now, as
with anything, do your research, buy from a company you trust, and
make sure you’re getting a solution that is actually going to solve a
problem. After all, making sure your kids get home safe from school is
one thing, but cooking a pot roast in a Wi-Fi connected crockpot is
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