What is the Internet of Things and Why does it Matter?

Internet of things concept and cloud computing technology smart home technology internet networking concept. internet of things cloud with apps.cloud computing technology device.cloud appsGiven the media hype surrounding the Fourth Industrial Revolution, many IP practitioners probably have been afraid to ask aloud: “What is the Internet of Things and what does ‘going digital’ even mean!?” Like many corporate buzzwords and flavors du jour, we sometimes are afraid to ask the basic questions out of the fear of looking or sounding stupid! Well, we all know the old adage — the only stupid question is the one that goes unasked. Even better, former Secretary of State Colin Powell is famous for saying, “there is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers!” While this series is not intended to be an engineering textbook on the IoT and its constituent technologies, we will attempt a non-stupid (albeit brief) answer to some very smart questions.

To understand what “going digital” means, we must first understand the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT), and to understand the Internet of Things we must start with the all-too-familiar “consumer Internet” or simply, the “Internet.”

Simply put, the Internet is a global interconnection of computer servers accessed by multiple endpoints such as mobile telephones, laptops, desktops, tablets and other devices. As used today, the Internet is the main source for many of the 3.5 billion (“connected”) consumers to seek information from those servers (i.e., Websites) about the products and services they seek to purchase or entertainment they seek to enjoy.

Now, imagine that ordinary, everyday objects are embedded with sensors capable of linking through (wired and wireless) networks to the Internet. Those objects could be: (i) consumer devices such as mobile telephones, cameras, washing machines, light bulbs, cars or watches; (ii) industrial equipment such as jet engines, ships, locomotives or turbines; or (iii) living things  such as animals with implanted tracking devices, or even people with, for example, implanted or ingested medical devices. Collectively, these (now, “smart”) objects — equipped with sensors capable of linking to the Internet and communicating to a server information about itself (e.g., temperature, pressure, acceleration, velocity, load, location, on/ o status, etc.) — make up the IoT as shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1: IoT Ecosystem

Figure 1: IoT Ecosystem

Surprisingly, the term “Internet of Things,” coined by British entrepreneur Kevin Ashton in 1999, still has no single, universally-accepted definition. Perhaps one of the best definitions, however, is:

“Internet of Things” and “IoT” refer broadly to the extension of network connectivity and computing capability to objects, devices, sensors, and items not ordinarily considered to be computers. These “smart objects” require minimal human intervention to generate, exchange, and consume data; they often feature connectivity to remote data collection, analysis, and management capabilities.

Below is a table that highlights the differences between the consumer Internet we are all familiar with and the IoT:

Internet of Things

As for the phrase “Industrial Internet” or “Industrial Internet of Things” (IIoT), this refers to the portion of the IoT comprised of industrial equipment such as jet engines, oil and gas equipment, power grids, locomotives, etc., and not to the “things” that are the basis of consumer applications (e.g., consumer wearables or ingestibles).

Now, having defined the Internet of Things, we now turn to why do we care?

The promise of the Internet of Things is the ability to perform analytics on data collected from the smart objects connected to the IoT in order to lead to new knowledge and provide insights to owners, users and servicers of the objects. Thus, simply put, the “digital transformation” being experienced by several industries involves companies shifting away from selling only hardware (e.g., household appliances, jet engines, locomotives, turbines, compressors, motors, etc.), to selling solutions — a suite of hardware equipped with sensors and wireless communications generating valuable data, coupled with analytics software solutions that enable users to monitor, control, diagnose and generally operate such hardware more e ciently (e.g., via remote diagnostics and scheduling preventative maintenance).

Thus, “going digital” is not just about selling (more) software, it is a system-level approach via selling outcome-based solutions. And, as industries which are our clients undergo this digital transformation, IP practitioners will be asked to use existing patent, trademark, copyright, trade secret and other legal rights to protect such client’s investment in digital technology to stay competitive and drive business growth during the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

From a business perspective, the estimates of the number of devices within the IoT and its financial impact understandably vary. Taken as a whole, however, these varying estimates paint a picture of substantial significance:

The following table further puts the Internet of Things in perspective as we look at nine commercial perspectives for its use:


Lastly, we point out that as far back as 2008, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence issued a report stating that the Internet of Things is one of six disruptive civil technologies “with the potential to cause a noticeable – even if temporary – degradation or enhancement in one of the elements of U.S. national power.” So, in sum, we as IP practitioners should care about the IoT because our clients and our government care!

TO BE CONTINUED… Up next is a discussion of enabling technologies and IoT standardization.

Join Ray Millien and Gene Quinn for a discussion of the IP implications of the Internet of Things on December 1, 2016, at 12pm ET. CLICK HERE to REGISTER


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3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Younis]
    March 4, 2017 09:09 pm

    Well demonstrated with simplicity and real examples. Thanks

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    November 24, 2016 05:16 am

    >>>[Of course there is ample patenting opportunity for unobvious specific detailed improvements in this subject.]

    I work with this stuff every week. It is not just improvements. That is pretty condescending.

  • [Avatar for Paul F. Morgan]
    Paul F. Morgan
    November 23, 2016 01:12 pm

    Many years ago I did a prior art patentability search for this very subject of “monitor, control, diagnose and generally operate such hardware more efficiently (e.g., via remote diagnostics and scheduling preventative maintenance.”
    Among other old prior art on this general subject there was my own surprising personal observations from a guided tour as an EE student in 1959 that all of the above was being done by AT&T inside each of its long distance chain of big sealed remote unmanned concrete microwave towers, having dual power supplies, burgler alarms, microwave receivers and transmitters, etc., being remotely monitored and controlled.
    [Of course there is ample patenting opportunity for unobvious specific detailed improvements in this subject.]