What’s wrong with the phrase ‘Internet of Things’?

4 min read
Arash Zafarnia
  •  Apr 27, 2016
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Slowly but surely, “things” all around us are transcending their old physical-object-status by becoming smart and connected. And as a result, they’re joining the so-called Internet of Things.

Never has a term been so loved and hated as the “Internet of Things.” Some in the industry detest it so much they refuse to speak it. Others find it to be the quickest way to differentiate this emerging set of products—and the strategies and processes that go into creating them—from traditional ones.

The acronym IoT makes a handy nickname, too. On the other hand, the term may be too limiting to stand the test of time. IoT is unfortunate in that it focuses on the product more than the experience or benefits it provides. It can also be limiting in its description, as not everything in this category is connected to the internet.

How’d we get here?

According to a Forbes history on the Internet of Things, the concept dates as far back as 1932. A 2004 MIT article is one of the earliest publications to use the term and develop the modern concept.

According to Google Trends, interest in the phrase “Internet of Things” was low until 2009 when usage grew, exploding just the past 2 years.

Source: Google Trends for phrase “Internet of Things.”

Tech terms do tend to duke it out over time. We used to stumble over “world wide web,” and now we just say “internet.” Some terms evolve—as in car phone to cell phone to mobile phone to smartphone—as the functionality or perception of a technology evolves. When we don’t know what to call something, it’s a good indicator that we don’t know what it is quite yet.

And that’s precisely why for many, the term IoT just doesn’t work. Calling to mind frivolous mashups like the internet-connected piggy bank and the ever-elusive internet-connected refrigerator, it disregards the human part of the equation and the way smart, connected products can meet real human needs.

“Never has a term been so loved and hated as the ‘Internet of Things.'”

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At Pushstart, we’re developing spirometers that actively help kids better manage asthma, kitchen appliances that help families share important information, and new drink dispensers that dramatically reduce waste. These products and experiences are much bigger than things.

We think critically about the problem to be solved and the desired experience to be created, which allows us to identify the technologies that are the best fit for whatever we’re creating. When we work with a new client, we often avoid the temptation to assume an “IoT-like” experience is the answer. In some cases, a product can be smart and connected without even using the internet.Twitter Logo As a result, we naturally expect the term to evolve over time. It wasn’t too long ago that “machine-to-mobile” was a more commonly used term than “IoT”.

As a whole, the market’s understanding of IoT’s potential has matured greatly in just 5 years—we’ve moved away from gimmicks and closer to meaningful experiences that provide value to people’s lives. In this light, debate over the phrase IoT is a good thing. Lack of industry-wide acceptance of the term is consistent with the fact that our takes on the purpose, utility, and experience of these products continue to evolve.

“The phrase ‘Internet of Things’ disregards the human part of the equation.”

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Where do we go from here?

Moving our terminology away from physical, technical realities of the past may offer inspiration. We might consider taking a cue from some of the founding fathers of the movement at MIT Media Lab whose vision is to “invent the future of digitally augmented objects and environments” and “inspire the products and services of tomorrow” by inventing “Things That Think.” A term like Things That Think may help us leap beyond the objects or technologies themselves to focus on the valuable services that smart, connected products can deliver.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what we call it. The key is to keep breaking down traditional product development barriers so we can create more powerful, efficient, and meaningful products. It will take more than a single term to explore the value that fluidity between products and services can deliver, and to make great products that play a part in that broader ecosystem.

How do you feel about the term “Internet of Things?” If you like it, what makes it the best fit—or if not, why not? Most importantly, what should we call this emerging class of products and the strategies associated with creating them? We’d love to hear about any alternate terms or phrases you use to make yourself understood in this brave new world. Tweet us @pushstartcreate.

Header photo by NYC Media Lab. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

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