A Brief History of the Internet of Things


During the Internet’s brief history there have been 4 major phases that have had an impact on humanity (Evans, 2001).
  1. Academia.  Primary use allowed universities to interconnect.
  2. Static content.  Simple web pages provided limited content to the public.
  3.  Dynamic content.  Business transactions were possible.  Online banking and shopping became the norm.
  4. Social networks.  Internet has become ingrained as the social norm.  Regular interactions with friends and family occur with online services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
Throughout the Internet’s evolution its primary function has remained consistent; provide people information.  The Internet is on the cusp of a major transformation that will change its purpose from serving humanity to technology.  This new concept is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT).


When the personal computer became part of mainstream culture in the 1980s, individuals began to rely on those machines to perform tasks previously done by humans. The advent of networked computers allowed people to communicate with each other as never before, first to send rudimentary messages, then over the Internet via the World Wide Web to exchange goods and services and to establish social networks. As these interactions have evolved, they have become increasingly complex and connected users in an ever-expanding number of ways (e.g., ordering pizza via a website rather than a landline telephone); at the same time, these technologies become part of daily life, no longer unique, and make users’ lives easier.
Weiser, who developed the IoT concept, envisioned a world in which users’ lives revolved almost completely around connected technologies that faded into the background of their daily routines (1991). As head of the Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Weiser pioneered the concept of ubiquitous computing. That vision has evolved into what is now the framework for IoT. In the near future everything will contain transmitters and receivers.   Billions of people and objects will be interconnected.  That vision has evolved into what is now the framework for IoT.

IoT Blueprint

The basic premise of Weiser’s IoT theory is that, over time, humanity’s everyday tools will contain sensors that connect each other, transmitting and receiving information. Information measured can be related to time, (e.g., movement of an object, time of day), place (e.g., at the PC, indoors or outside) and/or the thing itself (e.g., human-to-human or computer-to-computer interaction) (ITU 2005).
Ley (2007) explains that, for items to be connected, they must have their own identities. “In order for objects and devices to usefully become part of a wider intelligent, information sharing network, it is vital that each one has a unique identity. This not only enables more things to be interconnected, it also means that objects that surround us can become resources and act as interfaces to other resources” (p. 65).
In their 2005 executive summary on IoT, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) outlined IoT in three steps. The first step of IoT is to actually connect these tools to large databases and networks and then to the Internet, the greatest network of networks (ITU, 2005). Radio-frequency identification (RFID) provides the ideal solution—it is an inexpensive, cost-effective and simple way to process a wide variety of data from a range of devices.

Radio Frequency Identification

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a generic term to describe the technology that utilizes radio waves to identify items (Ley, 2007). RFID-based systems can provide real-time tracking information.  RFID technology is widely used in tags that can collect information and then transmit it to computer systems (e.g., shipping information, supply chain management, toll road transponders, “chipping” pets). Ley describes these tags in detail.
There are two main types of RFID tags: passive (energy harvested from the reader) and active (with their own power supply). The more sophisticated tags offer read/write capabilities. RFID chips can be as small as 0.05 mm2 and can be embedded in paper. More recently, printable tags have been developed. RFID systems do not require line of sight and work over various distances from a few centimetres to 100 metres depending on the frequency used and type of system. Standards for tags and electronic product codes (EPC) are being overseen by EPC Global. (p. 66)
The second step of IoT is to use sensor technologies to interpret the information collected via RFID and interpret it, detecting changes in the physical status of things (ITU, 2005). Sensors are crucial to making IoT function. They serve as the “human” element in the process, detecting changes much the way the body’s systems would and initiate responses in the technology accordingly. In other words, “sensors play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between the physical and virtual worlds, and enabling things to respond to changes in their physical environment” (ITU, 2005, p. 4).
The third step is the rapid expansion of nanotechnology, allowing RFID-enabled sensors to be installed in smaller and smaller places. Such advancements have enabled the development of a nearly unimaginable array of smart devices, from phones to credit cards to QR codes to home security systems that can be remotely activated through a smart device.

IoT Dependencies

Jeff Apcar works for Cisco Advanced Services as a Distinguished Services Engineer.  Apcar explains that there are 2 major considerations regarding the progression of IoT (Apcar, 2011): 
  1. Physical limitations:  Size, available memory, CPU power, and power.
  2.  Logical limitations: 
In order to transform regular objects into smart-objects there must be a standardization.  Apcar explained that the next iteration of the Internet must incorporate an IP address into each smart-object.  When objects have an IP address they can be organized into a network.
IoT cannot be implemented with the current IPv4 addressing scheme.  There are over 6 billion people in the world yet IPv4 provides approximately 3.7 billion IP addresses.  The world faces a shortage of IPv4 addresses.  In order to support billions upon billions of smart-objects the IPv6 protocol must be used.  There are approximately 3.4×1038 IPv6 addresses (Telstra, 2003).
Power technology will need to be further developed as well.  People currently manually re-charge batteries for their internet connected gadgets.  Other Internet connected gadgets are directly powered by an AC outlet.  IoT smart-objects will be too numerous and too small to manually supply power.  Apcar explains that the typical smart-object may be smaller than the tip of a pen.  If the smart-object is battery powered it must be energy efficient and a single charge may have to last for years (Apcar, 2011).


The smart-object’s physical properties limit their range and scope.  The small size and limited power will translate to wireless links of unpredictable quality (Apcar, 2011).  Routing Over Low Power and Lossy (ROLL) networks compensate for device constraints.  Low power and Lossy networks (LLNs) are interconnected by a variety of wireless technology.  LLNs have at least 5 charecteristics (IETF, 2013):
  1. LLNs operate with a hard, very small bound on state.
  2.  LLN optimize for saving energy.
  3. Unicast and Anycast.
  4.  Limited link layers with restricted frame-sizes.
  5. Efficiency versus generality.
Current routing protocols such as OSPF and IS-IS have been considered for use with LLNs; but they currently do not meet all necessary requirements (IETF, 2013).


6LoWPAN is technology that allows IPv6 communication over IEEE802.15.4 based networks.  802.15.4 defines low-rate wireless personal area networks (LR-WPAN) (Apcar, 2011).  6LoWPAN technology was chartered to design a low power and low data rate solution.  It operates on an unlicensed and international frequency band (IEEE, 2012).  It is relatively slow when compared to modern Wi-Fi.  802.11 standards can transfer Gbps of data while the best data transfer rate of 6L0WPAN is only 250 kbps (IEEE, 2011).  However, the bandwidth is sufficient to transfer text data from embedded sensors. 


            Both LLN and 6LoWPAN are intended for the network, transport and session layers of the OSI model.  Constrained Restful Environments (CoRE) architecture provides an application protocol designed to work with smart-objects.  CoRE uses the Contrained Application Protocol (CoAP) to support a wide range of devices, transports and applications (Apcar, 2011.)  CoAP uses an embedded web transfer protocol (coap://) that is HTTP-compatible.  A simple packet header of less than 10 bytes facilitates low overhead and simplicity.  CoAP is defined for UDP communication (Shelby, 2011).

Sociological/User Implications

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it” (Weiser, 1991, p. 94). That quote, perhaps Weiser’s most famous, precisely encapsulates his vision of IoT. Little more than twenty years later, that vision is reality. In 2010, 12.5 billion devices were connected to the Internet, or 1.84 devices for each of the world’s then 6.8 billion inhabitants. By 2015, an estimated 25 billion devices will exist for 7.2 billion people, or 3.47 devices per person (Cisco, 2011). These numbers consider everyone on earth, including those in developing countries who may not even own a smart device, which means that many who are connected to IoT do so through multiple devices. Clearly, this technology has become part of the fabric of daily life.
With such connectivity come concerns regarding privacy. The business of tech has pushed the development beyond the rudimentary interactions of its early days to providing users the ability to nearly completely exist electronically. Naturally, questions have arisen as to who controls the data collected by the billions of sensors, “the eyes and ears embedded in the environment surrounding us?” (ITU, 2005, p. 9) The answer is murky. Quite simply, end users have no way of knowing who or what sees their personal data—they must trust the governments, businesses and all other entities that cultivate and share data through IoT to behave in an ethical way. There are also very real concerns about the security of the software, especially as it relates to personal information.
There are also genuine concerns about invasion of privacy, trust and the security of systems. Already, some RFID schemes have been halted in schools and the commercial sector because of public concerns.  RFID enabled passports have been shown to be insecure…Even now, people can be tracked through their mobile phones, credit/loyalty cards, and CCTV, but the convenience and benefits of these technologies are often seen as outweighing the concerns. This may not always be the case and policies and protections need to be put in place, especially when dealing with information about learners. (Ley, 2007, p. 76)
Indeed, there are countless examples of life with IoT raising questions about security and what the individual can expect in a newly digital age. Going forward, these questions will continue to arise as technology improves, forcing users to determine their personal balance of privacy and convenience.


What will Western society, and IoT, look like in the next decade? Rapidly advancing technology makes this practically impossible to determine. While the vision shaping IoT remains steady, the network itself is still being built. For those willing and able to hatch the next new ideas, great reward is possible. IoT start-up companies are proposing the solutions to problems like providing power sources for miniscule sensors and shaping the future of technology-enabled connectivity (Ackerman, 2012). 
Future Smart Energy Grids may provides fault tolerance and load balancing (similar to Internet routing).  IoT may innovate transportation to prevent vehicle collisions, eliminate drunk driving, and safely allow excessive high speeds on the interstate.  IoT has the potential to transform modern medical treatment.  As smart-objects become smaller they can act as probes that can safely detect and possible treat cancers.  All professional disciplines will benefit from the wealth of information that billions of smart-object will provide.  The era of IoT is under way.

Written by Steven Jordan on December 17th, 2012
Ackerman E. (2012, November 4). Could an Internet of Things Startup Be The Next Microsoft? Three Hobby Kits Hold Promise. Forbes QUBITS blog. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/eliseackerman/2012/11/04/could-an-internet-of-things-startup-be-the-next-microsoft-three-hobby-kits-hold-promise/.
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Ley D. (2007). Ubiquitous Computing. In Emerging Technologies for Learning, Volume 2 (chapter 6). Retrieved from http://www.pgce.soton.ac.uk/ict/NewPGCE/PDFs/emerging_technologies07_chapter6.pdf.
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