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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 [1]:

“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”?

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.