The Internet of Stuff


The Internet of Stuff

Let’s talk about the Internet of Stuff.

You might hear it called the Internet of Things.  It used to be called Machine-to-Machine Communication (M2M) but that’s not sexy.

What is it?

The Internet of Stuff is people (and companies) being able to monitor the status of remote, mobile or hard-to-reach devices.  When I put a Linquet or Tile bluetooth tracker on my dog, Fritz joined the Internet of Stuff.  When he wanders out of the yard, I get an alarm on my phone and the hunt begins. My electric meter communicates my hourly usage to the electric company without a meter reader coming around.  An oil company will have thousands and thousands of remote meters and alarms connected to wells, pipelines, valves and more.

Why now?

Machine-to-machine communication has been around for decades, but it used to be hard and expensive. Every application had to be written individually.  Every device had to be configured and set up with a wireless connection, which required an account, and maybe a SIM…

And if something broke in the field, you had to replace it with a new device with a new number and a new account, and configure it, and update your systems…  what a headache!  Now multiply that headache by thousands.

Mobile phone companies like AT&T Wireless and Bell Mobility spent twenty years watching their subscriber base, and revenues, grow and grow and grow, and as they reached 100% penetration, they asked themselves, “How will we grow our revenues once everyone has a phone?”.  Well, they had the bright idea of selling more than one mobile device per person (think tablet computers and cars with built-in internet/phone), but to really juice up their revenues they needed something more.  So they started aggressively pursuing M2M.  They got better at creating attractive billing systems. They realized that M2M accounts have nearly no churn or bad debt – that once you sign them up they just keep working, and paying, and often use very little bandwidth, in very predictable fashion, so they’re cheap for the cellular companies to maintain.  So the phone companies started to drop the per-device costs.

Simultaneously, wireless chip companies like Qualcomm and Sierra Wireless were improving the integration and configurability of devices, and including better System Development Kits (SDKs) so that the programming and configuration cycle were simplified.  Companies developed generic end-to-end solutions or else combined off-the-shelf subsystems into readily usable systems so users were closer than ever to one-stop shopping.

Two more recent innovations really kicked IoT into gear:  the Cloud, and big data.

You have thousands of devices, all over the place, submitting reams and reams of data.  No human can possibly sift through it, but if you have HUGE computing power, HUGE data storage and HUGE data transmission capacity, then you can slice and dice it and squeeze information out of it.  and that information is HUGEly valuable for companies.  the cost of storing and processing data offsite can be very attractive compared to maintaining an on-premises data centre, with personnel, air and power conditioning, physical and logical (network) security, physical off-site backups and more.

Why is everyone so excited about it?

Now that the pieces are in place, so many companies are discovering IoT solutions to their distributed environments.  As costs and complexity go down, return on investment goes up.  It becomes practical to do a test deployment with partial functionality before rolling out a full deployment.  The big data aspect opens up huge possibilities — electric companies doing time-of-day discounting is an obvious example.

Why did it suck before?

M2M used to be hard and expensive.  If  you look at the classic buyers’ objections, they’re all there:

  • It’s hard to build
  • it’s hard to configure
  • it’s hard to manage
  • it’s expensive
  • There’s no one-stop shopping and I have multiple vendors to deal with
  • Too many invoices
  • I’m locked into a single vendor
  • I’m locked into a technology that may not have a future.

Companies that succeeded in selling M2M solutions were able to present a compelling business case.  Companies that implemented M2M devoted significant manpower and capital to doing it right.

If you made a major bet on a particular technology, you could face huge costs in future.  General Motors thought analog cellular would be around far longer than the lives of the cars and trucks it was putting on the road with OnStar.  well, AT&T Wireless pulled the plug, and all the vehicles still on the road needed to get a new GSM OnStar kit, or the Safety-of-Life features were rendered useless.

In the last fifty years, exciting things have happened.  Computers got smaller and more powerful.  Standards pushed aside proprietary systems and protocols.  Wireless and wired telecommunications became cheap(er) and more ubiquitous.

The three most important things in communications are:

  • digitization
  • packetization
  • compression
  • standards

Ok.  that’s four.  the first three are the driving *technologies* but the fourth item is hugely important.  I can’t understate how important it is for people, and companies, and countries, and industries, to agree on common protocols, or standards.

So what do I know?

What are my credentials?

Well, I was involved in some early M2M deployments starting in 1992 on the Canadian and US Mobitex Networks.  I built and operated an international GPS/GNSS receiving network for Rx Networks (you don’t ever want to be in the position of saying, “Jeremy, could you please fly to Tierra Del Fuego ASAP because the server there is hung”).  My dog Fritz does indeed wear a Linquet bluetooth tracker.

How can I play?

You can try out the Internet of by buying a packet of Linquet bluetooth trackers at You can buy kits and find sample applications in, for instance, the Arduino/Raspberry communities.

Or you can call me and I’ll help you get going in the Internet of Stuff.

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