The Internet of Things Revisited

RFID is not really about connecting objects to the Internet; it's about capturing data needed to manage things that aren't being managed today.
By Mark Roberti
May 31, 2010I had the privilege of joining an illustrious panel on May 19 to discuss the so-called "Internet of Things" at the 2010 MIT CIO Symposium. The session was great—it was one of those rare panels that was both entertaining and informative. But I think the idea of the Internet of Things might have outlived its usefulness.

The panelists were Robert LeFort, CEO of Ember, a company that manufactures RFID sensors used to form mesh networks; Sanjay Sarma, a professor and co-founder of the Auto-ID Center at MIT; Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet inventor and founder of 3Com, who is now a partner at Polaris Ventures; and me. The panel was moderated brilliantly by Michael Chui, a senior fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute.

Sarma, a great speaker and an all-around smart guy, opened by explaining how he and David Brock came up with the original concept of putting low-cost RFID tags on everything and linking them to data stored in Internet databases. He said Kevin Ashton, the Auto-ID Center's director, coined the term the Internet of Things.

Metcalfe was funny, charismatic and intelligent. He pointed out that 10 billion to 15 billion microcontrollers are shipped every year (chips used in everything from cars to coffeemakers). "These are not tags," he stated. "Most are not networked. The value of these devices would increase exponentially if they were networked. There's a law about that," he said, referring humorously to Metcalfe's Law.

LeFort made the point that we shouldn't underestimate "the unbelievable power of convenience." He said his RFID sensors could be used to adjust the temperature in different areas of a room or facility automatically, to maximize energy efficiency. People wouldn't have to do anything.

We were all in agreement that RFID is a powerful technology that will deliver significant benefits for both business and consumers. I made the point, however, that while the Internet of Things is a useful term in that it helps people grasp the concept of being able to connect objects to the network, it probably has outlived its usefulness.
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