Research firm Gartner says the "Internet of Things" will have 26 billion connected devices by 2020.
Maybe. But connected to what? And how? Here's what you need to know about the "Internet of Things" phenomenon.
There will be no 'Internet of Things'
The label "Internet of Things" is used to describe Internet-connected devices that communicate without human involvement.
For example, as you read this article, you're using the regular Internet. You're a human being who is communicating with another human being (Yours Truly), and this communication is facilitated by many other human beings (editors, web designers, engineers, etc.). Like Soylent Green, the Internet is made out of people -- and computers whose main purpose is to help people use the Internet.
The "Internet of Things" is different mainly in that it's not made out of people.
Let's imagine a scenario 10 years into the future when the "Internet of Things" is supposed to be established. You come home with a hypothetical "smart toaster," which connects to the Internet. You plug it into a kitchen outlet. The toaster boots up, finds the home Wi-Fi network and sends out a query to all the other smart devices registered to you. Your alarm clock, smart toothbrush, TV, smartphones, tablets, PCs, smart glasses, smart smoke detector, home automation base station, smart clothes, smart fridge, smart washer and dryer and smart kitty litter box each in turn introduces itself to the toaster, telling its unique identifiers and what they're capable of doing. The toaster responds in kind. In the future, the toaster can send and receive instructions from other devices.
For example, you have friends over for breakfast and make several slices of toast. There's a lot of heat and a little smoke, and your smart smoke detector suspects a fire. So it sends out a message to the other devices saying, in effect, "is anyone creating heat and smoke?" The toaster can respond the equivalent of: "Yeah, it's me. No fire here and nothing to be alarmed about." So the smoke alarm doesn't sound.
"Things" are connecting to each other and interoperating without human involvement. That's one consumery example of the "Internet of Things." (There will be industrial and other applications on a massive scale.)
The "Internet of Things" is a bad name because "things" don't have their own Internet. They use the regular Internet. There is no separate "Internet of Things."
"Things of the Internet" would be closer. And "things that interact with other things without human involvement" would be even more accurate.
Another reason why the "Internet of Things" is a bad name is that the devices can make these connections without using the Internet. Some can connect peer-to-peer, or over a local network, without going online. The ability to connect to the Internet is not a necessary criterion for inclusion in the "Internet of Things" category.
Oh, and one more (fatal) problem
There's one more problem with the label "Internet of Things" -- it implies Internet-like compatibility and universality of communication standards that may never happen.
The basic standards for the Internet were developed before there were powerful companies with a vested interest in excluding competitors from markets. By the time the big Internet companies were rich enough to throw billions of dollars around to get their way, the standards, such as TCP/IP and others that make the Internet universal, were already well established.
This is not the case for the Internet of Things. The phenomenon is arising in an industrial environment of powerful companies that each want an unlevel playing field in their favor, or that have strong and mutually exclusive ideas about how the industry should work.
Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée calls it the "basket of remotes" problem.