The Internet of Things: Interesting, But Don’t Hold Your Breath

This series is commissioned by UPS.

Imagine a world where everything in it sends information to other objects and to you.  Everyday items – from furniture to appliances, from toys to tools — would be tagged with tiny RFID (radio frequency identification) tags and wirelessly connected in an open network to transmit information.

RFID Tag on Skirt
RFID Tag on Skirt

As the Economist blog Babbage notes:

“Running out of milk, losing the car keys or forgetting to take your medicine would be things of the past. The ability to locate anything, anywhere, at anytime, would cause crime to decrease, stores to remain stocked, healthcare to be improved, road accidents to be reduced, energy to be saved and waste to be eliminated.”

Dubbed the “Internet of Things,” to some this vision of a world in which everything is tagged and communicating sounds like utopia – where information enables us to live better lives and avoid problems.  To others, the idea of everything simultaneously and continuously transmitting information is a 1984-Big-Brother nightmare that promises to subject us to unwelcome surveillance and intrusion into our privacy.

No matter how you view it, the fact is that we’re years – decades – away from achieving such a vision in a widespread way.  Without a doubt, small forays are being made here and there to tag individual items with RFID tags.  But if you just think about all the individual items in your home or office, it doesn’t take long to realize what a mammoth undertaking it would be to tag each and every item and implement some giant open network to transmit information about those items.

A recent GigaOm report suggests a number of technological reasons that the Internet of Things has not yet become a reality.  The report – “The Internet of Things: What It Is, Why It Matters” – notes, for example, that the current Internet protocol supports only 4.3 billion unique addresses and many many more would be needed for an Internet of Things.

While there are any number of technological limitations getting in the way of The Internet of Things, it still boils down to need and justification. What has always bothered me about this vision of the Internet of Things is “who” and “why”?

  • Who would want to bother tagging a child’s toy or a chair or a bottle of shampoo?
  • And why – what would be the motivating justification to go to all that expense and effort?

In the past 5 years businesses and government have made progress toward adding RFID tags at the case and pallet level, to improve supply chain and demand chain efficiencies.  Led by initiatives by organizations such as WalMart and the U.S. Department of Defense, some businesses have implemented RFID to track shipments, decrease inventory losses, prevent product tampering and/or counterfeiting, and for other solid business justifications.  But tagging of individual items is hardly widespread today, for many reasons, not the least of which is cost and the lack of a clear ROI justification for manufacturers and retailers. It costs money to add RFID tags to goods; and the benefits to be gained today do not override that cost.

So it brings us back to the question:  what’s the overriding motivation and justification to track all these miscellaneous items in our homes, offices and communities?  Today there isn’t an overwhelming motivation that outweighs costs. No matter how exciting the concept of the Internet of Things (and it is exciting), we’re just not there yet – and won’t be for many years to come.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

12 Reactions
  1. I love technology, but I agree there just isn’t a good enough reason for this level of tracking. Despite the ubiquitous grocery shopping concept, I wouldn’t actually want that much technology in my life.

  2. Hi Robert, The Internet of Things is a grand idea — and truly exciting — but it’s very much a thing of the future.

    – Anita

  3. It is interesting to me, as someone who used to work in the auto-id industry. RFID was going to be everywhere and smaller, better and more responsive and it never really seemed to take off. It was used in logisitccs situations with RFID scanners, but this was minor compared to its real potential such as this application. As one who regularly leaves his car keys lying around, RFID could solve that, but the cost implications, I believe, do not warrant the development. Great article.

  4. Interesting article, but pretty completely wrong on many of your assumptions. First of all, the Internet of Things is about much, much more than RFID and AutoID (although a number of vendors with vested interested in these markets have tried to declare RFID the center of the IoT universe). Intelligent systems, devices, sensors, and even people play a very key role in the IoT.

    Additionally, most of the scenarios that the IoT makes possible are or have already been implemented for many years, in what I like to call the “Intranet of Things” – inside factories, utilities, by the military, logistics/transportation providers, healthcare providers, and many more.

    The near term opportunity for the IoT is expanding usage in these sectors who are already familiar with the technology and the value proposition. There is a step change in cost effectiveness needed before the value proposition for a typical consumer product will offset the costs. Some expensive consumer goods such as cars, appliances, and HVAC equipment may see application earlier than others.

    Also, the assumption that the IoT depends on widespread acceptance of IPV6 is patently untrue. In fact, for the trillions of existing devices and sensors, a gateway-based approach is not only viable but essential, thus mitigating the need for each device or sensor to have its own IP address. At some point this may become a real concern, but not for quite a while.

    So to summarize, the contentions that the IoT is about RFID and is dependent on IPV6 are untrue, and the premise that broad deployment is decades away is completely incorrect. The commercial/industrial/military/infrastructure areas will simply lead the consumer sector in its deployment and acceptance.

  5. I think that we will see the development of trackability in the field of supply chain management. Don’t you think that geo-tagging and location based services will increase the focus on bringing the “gap” between cyberspace and the physical space?

  6. Web Design Norwich

    I think it has to stop at a certain level otherwise things get out of hand this seems to be way to much technology for what i can handle. Great article though, thanks for sharing!

  7. The problem with assigning a nice pithy name to a technology or trend such as “The Internet of Things”, is that it somehow makes us view it as single concept and application. The fact is that this is neither simple nor futuristic, the concept is complex and the technology exists now. The protocol limitations stated in the article, if they ever applied, have already been overcome with IPv6.

    The number of individual objects that can and will communicate to other objects will continue to increase rapidly. It will probably never apply to all objects. I doubt I will ever own a couch with an RFID, but perhaps a reusable shipping tag may be attached. My handset may have applications that will allow me to turn off the TV, the house lights and start the car, as well as locate my wallet, my house keys, and my glasses. It may buzz me as I drive down the street to let me know that that the gift I’ve been searching for is in stock at the store I just past. My car may apply the brakes because the care ahead suddenly stopped. These are all practical applications for “the internet of things” and none of it has to happen all at one time.

    Make no mistake, though, this and many more things like it are happening and will continue to happen at different rates. It will not wait until society as a whole has deemed the internet of things to be Utopian or Orwellian.

  8. Christine Aventi

    RFID chips like it or not will invade our lives. There is increasing use of this new technology, but what about our protection of our data?