​What is the Internet of Things? The tech revolution explained

Everything in your life, connected to the internet
Wareable is reader-powered. If you click through using links on the site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

The Internet of Things is one of the sillier phrases you'll hear, but behind this buzzword is an example of one of the most important revolutions in technology.

It's an all-encompassing term that refers to the internet changing from a giant network of PCs to a mega-network that's connected to everything around you. From your kitchen to your car and everything in between, the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the world.

What actually is the internet?

To start looking at what's ahead, we need to understand what we have already.

The internet is essentially a bunch of computers (and phones and tablets) connected by addresses that let them communicate, as well as access the world wide web through browsers. That's until the Things came along.

IoT takes the emphasis off a computer used by a human to access information and instead puts it on devices without screens, which can be controlled by apps from anywhere in the world and take advantage of the huge amount of live information on the web.

What are the things of the internet?


Well, given that another name for IoT is the "Internet of Everything", the list is fairly exhaustive.

Over the past couple of years we've seen an explosion in connected devices. There are door locks, home security cams, in-car entertainment, ovens, fridges, washing machines and even coffee machines. If there's an appliance in your home, you can bet there's a connected version.

And it's not just niche technology powered by small startups with lofty dreams of trying to change the world. Big names with established histories are getting involved, like Honeywell in the US and British Gas in the UK, who both connect heating systems to the internet so you can control them from wherever you may be.

What's the point?

Simply put, when the information of the internet is added to previously dumb objects, stuff gets useful. It's not just about turning your connected kettle on from the comfort of your bed – although that is awesome – it's about making life better without even trying.

It's all about erasing as much friction as possible. For instance, you can set up your garden watering system to avoid watering the plants after it rains. Or, you can set up your garage to open when your car is pulling up to the driveway. Heating systems could warm and cold your house based on the external temperature. These are the kinds of things the Internet of Things is capable of.

I like it. What can I buy today?


Nest is probably the biggest name, not to mention one of the most successful, in IoT. It has connected smoke and CO2 alarms, it has security cams and, most famously a smart thermostat that can learn your routines and adjust your house to match. While you have to spend about a week getting it all set up to your specifics, once it learns your routine you're good to go. It just works.

The second big name is Philips Hue, which is all about taking control of the lighting in your home. Lighting is probably the most visceral smart home device you can set up. You can see the difference when you're sitting in your lounge and the light gradually ramps up to full brightness as the sun sets. Or how you can set the lights to flash your favorite sports team's colors when they win.

That's also why the smart home lighting game is the most competitive of all. There's Philips up at the top, but there are also alternatives like LIFX. GE and Ikea have also thrown their hats into the ring, each one trying to help you set the right mood for the right circumstance.

Outside of those two, there are bathroom scales from the likes of Fitbit and Nokia (formerly Withings) that can record our body mass and send it up to the cloud. There are locks from August that can allow us to give our friends and families guest passes to our home, so they can automatically enter. There are even washing machines from companies like Samsung that can let you know when they're done with whatever task you assigned them.

What has the IoT got to do with wearables?


Well, everything. Smartwatches, fitness trackers, action cams, smart clothes, and most of the items we consider as wearables are all objects that can send the data they're recording about your daily life up to the cloud for processing. On the other hand, there are also wearables, like smartglasses, that are looking to push all sorts of relevant online information back down the other way.

Wearables may have started off as fairly dumb pedometers but with so many sensors on board now and almost all of them Wi-Fi-enabled, wearables have become IoT objects in their own right.

Smartwatches (and even fitness trackers such as the Misfit Flash) can be set up to control your Nest thermostat, as well as Spotify playlists, smart locks, and smart lightbulbs, right from your wrist.

Is it a good idea for all the objects out there to be smart?


There are some big upsides. Automation of the world around us has been a fairly positive thing so far. Since the industrial revolution, our standard of living has got a whole lot better and, if we can get more of our possessions to pick up some of those monotonous daily tasks – especially in ways uniquely tailored to us – then that leaves us with more time to do the things we like. You know, like going outside. Remember that?

We'll have more time, there'll be less wastage, which should mean spending less money, and with far better health and fitness systems in place, we'll lead longer, safer lives too. So: more leisure, more living, more money; sounds good.

And the downsides?


Well, more connected devices means more nodes for hackers to try to compromise. An internet-accessible pacemaker might be a good idea when you or your doctor need to make some adjustments to your cardiac rhythms, but it's not such a bonus if you're held to ransom at the threat of having it switched off by criminals. Or, it could just be a foreign government engaging in cyber warfare with digital collateral damage.

That isn't a far flung idea. A couple years ago a Houston couple had their baby monitor hacked, thanks to a known exploit in the Foscam connected camera they were using. Last October, hackers were able to take control of over 100,000 IoT devices to attack internet service company Dyn, shutting down access to websites like Facebook and Netflix.

The double-edged sword that is data also looms more ominously, as this growing army of smart devices records more of it than ever before. We'll wear them on our wrists, on our faces, under our skin and we will invite them by the dozen into our homes.

Yes, put to skilful use, your chunk of Big Data can be an immensely helpful thing. It can bring what you need from the world right to your doorstep without any of the information that you don't. But that does mean relying on all number of third parties to be responsible with your hard mined information.

Large scale database hacks are becoming a bimonthly occurrence nowadays, and we've pretty much accepted that our devices can spy on us so their makers can profit of our data. This will probably need to change so that we're more than just commodities in the Internet of Things. And it has, kind of. Google's attempt to put ads on Google Home did not go well, for instance.

And there's more…


Not only is there a privacy issue in terms of our data but, if every move we make is watched, then that starts to have implications for our notion and feelings of freedom too, and that's rather key to the human experience. What's more, it might start to feel a little claustrophobic to have everything suggested to us thanks to our connected consumables. One might begin to lose the sensation of control over our own lives. And what happens if things all of a sudden go sour, and the wrong people get a hold of your data?

Lastly, there's the environment to think of. This Internet of Things is going to mean truck loads of microprocessors and they require all sorts of rare metals in their construction. Not only are we going to be blasting out great continental swathes to mine them, we'll also need to find a decent way of disposing of the Palladium in your Android-powered microwave too.


How we test


I'm a technology and sports journalist and writer with over 15 years experience. Most recently my role centres around monetising editorial in a content lead role at Future Publishing, writing for What Hi-Fi, TechRadar.

I'm also a published author and a presenter for both national radio and for video too. I've appeared on TV news channels, online videos, podcasts and I've worked for BBC Radio 2, Radio 4 and had a regular slot on BBC Asian Network as the resident gadget expert.

In a previous life, I was a professional actor. I also lectured at Harlow College on digital publishing for two years. Loves include skiing, cats, canoeing, singing and football.

Related stories