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The Internet of Overhyped Things


Practically everywhere I turn, vendors want to chat with me about the Internet of Things (IoT) — that great vision that soon billions of devices will enjoy network connectivity by which they can burble forth a torrent of information and potentially receive all kinds of useful commands. Of the many touted examples, are refrigerators that can show you their internal temperature and alert you when it gets too high, DVRs that can notify you they're running out of space, on an on. In the a commonly presented dream scenario, your smart house would have the ability to send data to a website where you could monitor all the important as well as inconsequential telemetry of your abode, including regular updates from every single one of your appliances, built-in cameras, your thermostat, and so on. Being in the know about your home will never have been so complete and so draining. For people who like to worry constantly about details, welcome to heaven!

There is good reason why vendors are scrambling after this imagined universe. Every hardware vendor wants to participate (processors, wi-fi/Bluetooth, monitoring devices, screens, and so on), and every software vendor wants a role in a scenario in which literally billions of Internet endpoints suddenly teem forth as data collections points.

Judging by the amount of coverage, the high-visibility presence of high-profile vendors, the emerging crop of tradeshows, and the inevitable stream of books, you might be fooled into believing that the IoT was an imminent phenomenon for which you were perhaps already late. You're not. It's currently mostly babble about a future hoped-for phenomenon. It is like pre-teens and sex: They're all excitedly talking about it, while in fact no one is actually doing it.

In the case of IoT, the obstacles are significant: In addition to many secondary issues, network infrastructure, security, and data formats are the salient questions. The last two items, especially security, are important obstacles. Security violations will no longer mean just the simple, but now accepted, bother of waiting for new credit cards and monitoring your credit profile. Rather, a breach means access to very personal data about you, your family, your car, your home, your possessions. The danger is significant. If I can read sensor data in your house, I might well be able to know that despite the lights being on, the TV playing, and the car in the driveway, there is nobody home. And equally frightening, I might be able to issue commands to the various connected devices.

However, security alone is not a big enough obstacle to prevent the IoT. It's just one that will need to be handled before mass adoption. Network infrastructure, however, is a whole different story. If each device becomes an Internet endpoint, there is little doubt that IPv4 will run out of numbers almost immediately (as it's been on the verge of doing for much of this decade). While it's certainly possible that NAT will allow devices to operate behind a single IP address and then post data for retrieval elsewhere, this is not the design generally presented nor one that is particularly desirable. It seems fairly clear that for IoT to become a reality, the world needs to move to IPv6. Most ISPs today and most networked devices are IPv6-ready, but only a tiny fraction have actually switched over. This issue alone will add several years to full IoT adoption.

Finally, there are the questions about agreement over data formats, APIs, and programming conventions. As has occurred frequently in the past, whenever new important technologies arise, there is a first wave of standards that are mostly patches on the problem, followed by more robust and more widely accepted standards that truly enable interoperation. We are far from getting accord on those matters, in part because of the problem left unstated by so many vendors: Except for a few medical devices and the occasional smart thermostat — all of which are crude implementations of IoT — there is no large-scale implementation. Everything is experimental, prototype-stage, exploration. All of which is indeed good, but hardly suggests that significant roll-outs are at hand or even imminent. 

While I fear that the surfeit of information that IoT could deliver will add even further to our collective distraction by unimportant items and intensify our nearly constant self-focus, it will undoubtedly bring unexpected benefits. As with all technologies, it's not until they become established for a while that the new, important possibilities begin to really emerge. As technologists, I expect, we're all curious to see what those new possibilities will be. But it will take far longer to get to them than today's vendors would have us believe.

— Andrew Binstock
Editor in Chief
alb@drdobbs.com
Twitter: platypusguy
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