The Internet of Things (IoT) market continues to grow with the increasing number of connected devices. These connected, or “smart,” devices can be found in every industry you can think of, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and agriculture. You’ve probably encountered smart devices in your own home, even! Still, it might seem hard to picture how these devices make up the larger ecosystem that IoT is. You may be wondering, what is IoT, exactly? Although IoT is very vast, this is everything you need to know about the Internet of Things the next time a friend or a coworker mentions their smart cars, watches, or doorbells.
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
If you’re confused, you’re not alone if you’re confused. Most people neither want nor 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.
I think the 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:
- Sensors that collect information and then send it.
- Computers that receive information and then act on it.
- Things that do both.
And all three of these have enormous benefits that feed on each other.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s go back to farming. The sensors collect information about 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.
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,
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
Originally published May 13, 2019. Updated October 6, 2022.