Better Late Than Never

By Kevin Ashton

The Internet of Things is arriving, just 10 years after it was anticipated.


In the late 1990s, I had an idea I called the “Internet of Things.” It was marvelous: I predicted RFID tags and sensors would connect physical stuff to the Internet without the need for human intervention. We would be able to automatically gather masses of standardized data about our richly detailed world in real time for the first time ever. The data would transform the way we lived and worked—both in ways we could imagine and ways we could not. It would be an express train bigger, faster and more important than the Internet itself, and it would be arriving by 2005, if not sooner.

I was not the only one who believed in the Internet of Things, but I often felt I was, especially when other people laughed at the concept. I was probably the loudest, youngest, least experienced and, therefore, most certain of all prognosticators. More seasoned, full-time visionaries hedged. I did not. I went on public record—a new, always available, easily searchable and very permanent record called the World Wide Web—with my conviction that the Internet of Things would be everywhere by 2005.

I was wrong. Progress was made in the RFID arena, including the development of important applications and adopters in many industries, but the Internet of Things did not become ubiquitous or even close to it. In the following years, other things, quite unforeseen—such as Facebook, Twitter and the Apple iPhone—took the world by storm instead. It looked as if the dream of a networked physical world was never going to come true.

But in the past 12 months, everything has changed. I’ve been receiving a constant stream of messages from strangers who want to talk about the Internet of Things. Twitter developed the hash tag “iot,” for Internet of Things, that gets daily tweets from all over the world. My great friend and MIT Auto-ID Center cofounder Sanjay Sarma noticed the same thing. We asked one another whether we were retro or just ahead of our time, and we have yet to reach a conclusion.

The ribbon on the wrapping came last month, when Zebra Technologies, always a believer in the dream, published its 2012 “Internet of Things Adoption Outlook” study. The entire report, available online, is worth reading, but some highlights are that the majority of business decision-makers now know what the Internet of Things is, feel positively about it and see RFID as an important technology. Even better, while only a few enterprises have begun to use the Internet of Things, most plan to do so by the end of 2014.

As so many people told me in the 1990s, I was wrong. But, it turns out, only about the timing. Ten years is a big miss, but more important is that the Internet of Things is finally happening.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center.