What Is the Internet of Things?

By Mark Roberti

No one seems to agree on a definition, but everyone agrees that linking physical objects to the Internet is an important and ongoing trend.


The term “Internet of Things” (IoT) was, as far as we know, coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999, when he was trying to explain radio frequency identification to senior executives. I met Kevin shortly thereafter, and he explained to me that I should think of a passive RFID transponder as a very low-cost, simple computer that could connect wirelessly to a reader connected to the Internet, providing companies with visibility into the locations and, potentially, the conditions of their assets.

The term was not used much for a few years thereafter, but with the advent of Google Glass, Nest wireless smart thermostats, Belkin’s WeMo Wi-Fi light switches and many other devices connecting to the Internet, the term has gained currency once more. But there is little agreement on what exactly is covered by the term “Internet of Things,” or which technologies are IoT technologies. Some experts say reading a tag and capturing information about the location and status of an object and then sharing that data over the Internet is not part of the Internet of Things. Others say it is.

Regardless of how you define it, companies are taking it seriously. Of 168 end users who responded to a recent survey RFID Journal conducted about the Internet of Things, 44 percent said the term “covers RFID and other technologies that are important.” Another 27 percent said “it is an important trend that our company takes very seriously.” Only 10 percent thought it was a meaningless buzzword.

We have decided to add an Internet of Things section to our website, which you can reach by clicking on the link on the top navigation bar. For much of last week, our editors have tried to come up with criteria for which stories would receive this tag and which would not. It wasn’t easy.

What we decided is that if a company is reading RFID tags on products, inventory, assets and other items and using this data internally, we would not consider this an IoT story (even if the data is stored in the cloud and shared across the Internet with other business units). But if data is collected and shared with third parties or consumers, then it would be.

A good example of what we would consider an IoT story is RFID Helps Ensure That Special Cup of Joe. Almacafé, a subsidiary of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, uses passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID systems to track premium coffee beans from farms through processing and warehousing, in order to better compete in the global market. The RFID solution also helps Almacafé boost sales and improve customer loyalty, by enabling coffee manufacturers and consumers to access information regarding the origins of a specific batch of beans via the Internet.

We won’t be covering things like Nest, because it doesn’t involve RFID or any of the core applications on which our readership is focused. But we will cover products with embedded RFID readers that are linked to the Internet, as well as (occasionally) some IoT stories that do not involve RFID but which we feel would be of interest to our readers.

We’ve never been dogmatic when covering RFID—we have always covered some non-RFID technologies, such as ultrasound, when used in similar applications—and we don’t want to be dogmatic about the Internet of Things either. Our goal is to serve your interests, and I am sure our coverage of IoT technologies will evolve as the concept itself evolves.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.