What is the Internet of Things, or IoT? A Simple Explanation.

The Internet of Things, or "IoT" for short, is about extending the power of the internet beyond computers and smartphones to a whole range of other things, processes, and environments. Here's everything you need to know.

IoT For All
What is IoT? - A Simple Explanation of the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is at the epicenter of the Digital Transformation Revolution that is changing the shape of business, enterprise and people’s lives. This transformation influences everything from how we manage and operate our homes to automating processes across nearly all industries. But what is IoT, actually? In this article, I’m going to share everything you need to know about the Internet of Things.

What is IoT?

If you just Google “What is IoT?” many of the answers are unnecessarily technical. Case in point:

“The Internet of Things (IoT) is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.”

—An unnecessarily technical explanation of IoT

You’re not alone if you’re confused. Most people neither want nor to need to dive into the nitty-gritty of IoT. In this post, I’ll provide you with a simple explanation of the Internet of Things and how it works.

Before we jump in, note that “The Internet of Things” and “IoT” can and will be used interchangeably.

IoT Explained: Simple and Non-Technical

You might be reading this on desktop, or tablet, but whatever device you’re using, it’s connected to the internet.

Connecting things to the internet yields many amazing benefits. We’ve all seen these benefits with our smartphones, laptops, and tablets, but this is true for everything else too. And yes, I do mean everything.

The Internet of Things means taking all the things in the world and connecting them to the internet.

What is IoT? IoT means connecting everything to the Internet.
Illustration: © IoT For All

I think confusion arises not because the concept is so narrow, but rather because it’s so broad and loosely defined. It can be hard to nail down the concept when there are so many examples and possibilities in IoT.

To help clarify, I think it’s important to understand the benefits of connecting things to the internet.

Why IoT Matters

When something is connected to the internet, that means that it can send information or receive information, or both. This ability to send and/or receive information makes things smart, and smarter is better.

Let’s use smartphones again as an example. You can listen to any song in the world, but not because your phone has every song stored on it. It’s because every song in the world is stored somewhere else (that place is known as “the cloud”), and your phone can request a song, and receive information to stream it.

To be smart, a thing doesn’t need to have super storage or a supercomputer inside of it. All a thing has to do is connect to super storage or to a supercomputer. Being connected is awesome.

In the Internet of Things, all the things can be put into three categories:

  1. Sensors that collect information and then send it.
  2. Computers that receive information and then act on it.
  3. Things that do both.

And all three of these have enormous benefits that feed on each other.

1. Collecting and Sending Information

This means sensors. Sensors can measure temperature, motion, moisture, air quality, light, and almost anything else you can think of. Sensors, when paired with an internet connection, allow us to collect information from the environment which, in turn, helps make better decisions.

What is IoT? - Soil moisture sensor
(Soil moisture sensor)
Image Credit: Sparkfun

On a farm, automatically getting information about soil moisture can tell farmers exactly when crops need to be watered. Instead of watering too much or too little (either of which can lead to bad outcomes), the farmer can ensure that crops get exactly the right amount of water.

Just as our senses allow us to collect information, sensors allow machines to make sense of their environments.

2. Receiving and Acting on Information

We’re all very familiar with machines acting on input information. A printer receives a document and then prints it. A garage door receives a wireless signal and the door opens. It’s commonplace to remotely command a machine to act.

So what? The real power of IoT arises when things can both collect information act on it.

3. Doing Both

Let’s go back to farming. The sensors collect information about the soil moisture. Now, the farmer could activate the irrigation system, or turn it off as appropriate. With IoT-enabled systems, you don’t actually need the farmer for that process. Instead, the irrigation system can automatically act as needed, based on how much moisture is detected.

You can take it a step further too. If the irrigation system receives information about the weather from its internet connection, it can also know when it’s going to rain and decide not to water the crops when they’ll be watered by the rain anyways.

And it doesn’t stop there! All this information about the soil moisture, how much the irrigation system is watering the crops, and how well the crops actually grow can be collected and sent to supercomputers in the cloud that run algorithms to that analyze all this information, leading to models that could be used to predict future conditions and prevent losses.

What is IoT? Smart Irrigation and IoT-enabled agriculture
Illustration: © IoT For All

And that’s just one kind of sensor. Add in other sensors like light, air quality, and temperature, and these algorithms can learn much much more. With dozens, hundreds, thousands of farms all collecting information, these algorithms can create incredible insights into how to make crops grow the best, helping to feed the world’s growing population.

Your Takeaway Definition of IoT

What is IoT?: The Internet of Things, or IoT, is about extending the power of internet connectivity beyond computers to a whole range of other things, processes, and environments. Those connected, smarter, things are used to gather information, send information, or both.

Why does IoT matter?: IoT provides businesses and people better insight into and control over objects and environments that are currently beyond the reach of the internet. By doing so, IoT helps businesses and people to be more connected to the world around them and to do more meaningful, higher-level work.

Want to Learn More About IoT?

If you’re interested in a deeper dive, I encourage you to check out the IoT 101: Introduction to The Internet of Things eBook I’ve written (it’s free!).

Originally published May 13, 2019. Updated February 3, 2021.

Author
IoT For All
IoT For All
IoT For All is creating resources to enable companies of all sizes to leverage IoT. From technical deep-dives, to IoT ecosystem overviews, to evergreen resources, IoT For All is the best place to keep up with what's going on in IoT.
IoT For All is creating resources to enable companies of all sizes to leverage IoT. From technical deep-dives, to IoT ecosystem overviews, to evergreen resources, IoT For All is the best place to keep up with what's going on in IoT.

Contributors
Calum McClelland
Calum McClelland
Calum is the Head of Operations at IoT For All. Calum is deeply interested in the moral ramifications of new technologies and believes in leveraging the Internet of Things to help build a better world for everyone.
Calum is the Head of Operations at IoT For All. Calum is deeply interested in the moral ramifications of new technologies and believes in leveraging the Internet of Things to help build a better world for everyone.