The week of January 4, 2015

Stop calling it the ‘Internet of Things’

By Mike Wehner

The only thing wrong with the Internet of Things is the phrase itself, the “Internet of Things.” It’s driving me absolutely insane, and it needs to stop. Now.

I have several issues with the phrase that everyone seems use to describe our ever-growing network of connected devices. First and foremost, it’s just plain lazy. It’s the kind of watered-down terminology I’d use if I was attempting to describe to my grandmother how my phone, Fitbit, and Nest thermostat all talk to each other—after, of course, I explained what a Fitbit and Nest thermostat actually are.

The Internet has always been a network that connects “things.” Computers of all sizes, phones, game systems, and more recently tablets have been part of this for many years, but people rarely use the term “Internet of Things” in reference to these devices. Instead, the phrase is reserved for things like Wi-Fi door locks, heart-rate monitors, and smart home security systems.

How about “smarttech,” or even “smartech”?

It’s as if we’ve completely given up on properly naming advancements in technology and instead decided to use existing terminology to label things with vague associations. If we’re going to insist on doing that, I suggest we go ahead and relabel a few other things as well, simply for consistency: A car should be referred to as a “metal horse,” a television should be an “electronic picture window,” and smartphones should be “pocket message computers.”

The funny thing is that there’s a very obvious reason why the term “Internet of Things” is such a poor label for our new smart-everything gadgets: It was invented before any of these devices existed, and the person who coined the phrase certainly didn’t have Microsoft Bands or Wi-Fi smoke detectors in mind. In 1999, Kevin Ashton made a presentation at Procter & Gamble on the topic of radio-frequency identification (RFID). He named that presentation “The Internet of Things.”

“The fact that I was probably the first person to say ‘Internet of Things’ doesn’t give me any right to control how others use the phrase,” Ashton wrote in an article that appeared in RFID Journal. “But what I meant, and still mean, is this: Today computers—and, therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information.

“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best,” Ashton continued. “We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory.”

In its original use, the Internet of Things was about objects of all types embedded with the technology to be able to monitor themselves as well as the world around them. As far as RFID goes, this vision is still being realized, as RFID tags are now used in everything from passports to library books, and systems can effortlessly monitor the comings and goings of “things.” In this context—objects effortlessly communicating with each other without the assistance of humans—the phrase fits perfectly. This is the original Internet of Things, not your iPhone telling the smartwatch on your wrist that you just got a Facebook friend request.

There’s no governing body for these types of naming decisions, which is why a poorly chosen name can catch on and end up becoming the default. It happens organically and spontaneously, and when it comes to tech the shorter a phrase or name is, the better. That’s why we call laptops “laptops” instead of “folding portable computers” or something equally cumbersome.

The Internet has always been a network that connects “things.”

When it comes to an entire industry of connected devices that covers home and business, health and entertainment, and everywhere in between, it needs to be broad and brief. We have smartphones and smartwatches, so why not add another thing to the smart pile?

How about “smarttech,” or even “smartech”?

Smartech would cover all of our bases! It’s any electronic device that communicates with another device to exchange information. It’s your Moto 360 and your Galaxy S5. It’s your Nest thermostat and your wireless router, and it’s your Nintendo Wii U and those creepy little Amiibo figurines. It says “tech” and “smart” right in the name, so there’s no confusion; you can put it in any sentence and not ruin the flow in the way “the Internet of Things” does, and it allows the RFID community to reclaim a phrase that is rightfully theirs.

Really, I guess I don’t care what we call it. So long as stop calling it the Internet of Things. Because that’s just a more confusing way to say “the Internet.”

Photo via liber/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III