What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things (IoT) connects dumb devices like refrigerators to the internet and uses software to connect them to our daily lives.

Can a car talk to a house? In the future, your car might tell your house that you are five miles away and please turn on the lights and warm up the house.

This is an example of an idea called the “Internet of Things” or IoT. Because wi-fi networks have become so common, dumb objects like refrigerators, washing machines, and cars can include internet access with software to make use of the internet connection.

For example, if you scanned in your groceries as you put them in the refrigerator, and pulled them out for use, each item could tell the refrigerator what it was, its expiration date, and other useful information. The refrigerator could collect and organize this information to send you. You might get emails with recipe ideas, for example, based on what food you have. Or an email with a grocery shopping list.

In the bigger less personal world, imagine water and gas pipes that notified your town when they had a leak. Or sensors in the woods that notified firefighters of a fire.

Researchers believe by 2020 there will be over 26 billion devices connected to the internet. Some estimate the number will be much higher, 100 billion.

The internet of things has at least these elements:

  • Sensors to detects inputs from the world around them.
  • Software to look at sensor data then follow rules to make decisions about how to respond to data.
  • Software to manage the operation of a device which includes one or more sensors.
  • An internet connection to transmit and receive data and instructions from other devices.

For example, your refrigerator might have:

  • A barcode scanner (sensor) to scan all food you put into it.
  • Software to evaluate scanner data about food stored in the refrigerator and make decisions about expiration dates, recipes, shopping lists, and other useful tasks to save you time.
  • A basic operating system to run the barcode scanner and the software evaluating data from the scanner.
  • An internet connection to help the software evaluate data and follow rules to make decisions about the barcode scanner data. For example, the refrigerator might use the internet to look up recipes or email you a shopping list based on when food expires.

To communicate, every device will need its own unique address the same way every web site has its own unique address, or URL. Now imagine someone has the unique address for your refrigerator and knows how to make the software in your refrigerator turn itself off, as a prank. Lately we have seen how software in cars can be hacked. The Internet of Things has the same security problems to solve.

Years ago, people joked home automation meant you had to reboot your house (or car) if the software crashed. Today operating systems are more stable. Google is working on Brillo, its second version of an operating system designed for objects. Microsoft, Apple, mbed, and other companies are adapting or creating operating systems and software to make dumb objects smart and interactive.

The biggest issues with billions of objects connected to the internet is security and privacy.

For example, the Nest thermostat knows when you are in a room or not. On a hot day, the Nest thermostat might keep your place cool if you are at home. If you’re not at home, Nest might keep the temperature warmer. Information about whether or not you are home, and what days and times you have been at home, also is useful for burglars, or the police. Whether or not you have control over data collected by Nest determines how much privacy you have (or don’t have) about your daily life.

Here is a detailed demonstration of how easy it is to hack some basic software used by internet of things software.


The Internet of Things has the potential to make our lives much simpler, especially the routine parts like food shopping, groceries, and calendars. But it would need to be easily controlled by each of us, and secure, to be truly useful.

Learn More

Internet of Things (Wikipedia)


A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the Internet of Things


Operating Systems for Internet of Things

There are too many to link here but these are a few you might investigate.

IEEE: Internet of Things


Defining the internet of things — time to focus on the data


Gartner IT Glossary: Internet of Things


Google muddies #IoT waters with Brillo OS


Libelium Smart World Graphic


The Internet of Things: When Toasters Go Online


Weaponizing Your Coffee Pot


The Internet of Things: [US] Government Gets Ready for a More Connectd World with New FTC Division


Your home could become one giant iPhone, courtesy of Apple


What are the best examples of the Internet of things? (Quora)

This thread includes a number of excellent examples.

VW’s Cheating Proves We Must Open Up the Internet of Things


Your Smart Home Knows a lot About You



  • Tim Slavin

    Tim is an award-winning writer and technologist who enjoys teaching tech to non-technical people. He has many years experience with web sites and applications in business, technical, and creative roles. He and his wife have two kids, now teenagers, who are mad about video games.

Also In The October 2015 Issue

October 2015 Issue: Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) connects dumb devices like refrigerators to the internet and uses software to connect them to our daily lives.

There are many operating systems for internet of things devices, from existing software used to control electronic boards to efforts by Google and Apple.

Disney Infinity 3.0, Rocket League, and Super Mario Maker are three fun video games to consider for the 2015 holiday season

You can learn a little software programming and have lots of fun with any number of coding apps available for your phone or tablet computer.

Operating system software is a key part of all computers. But what are they and how do they work?

Learning how to make kittens with JavaScript is a great way to learn how to use the free Chrome web browser to practice and learn JavaScript.

Working through a book can help parents learn programming with their kids or kids learn on their own.

Board games and card games are some of the best ways to learn about programming. You don't need a computer. Play as a family or group.

These robots also can be programmed to move around rooms, one way for kids to learn programming.

Six women were hired to use their math skills to program the ENIAC computer. They called themselves The First Programmers Club.

Nicky is a Linguistics major who learned coding skills to further her research. She's also finished a PhD, won a few big awards, and co-founded Grok Learning.

Two women created an innovative online service to teach teenage girls how to code by using video.

The new Rust programming language is designed to solve problems with operating systems and fix issues with C and other languages.

Data can become alive and pose questions as well as reveal answers to questions we have.

Links from the bottom of all the articles in this issue, collected in one place for you to print, share, or bookmark.

DRY is an acronym for Don't Repeat Yourself. It's a critical programming concept and skill to learn.

Interesting news stories about computer science, software programming, and technology for August and September 2015.

CoderDojo is a free after school club for kids ages 7-17 where kids, parents, mentors, and others play with technology and learn to code.

Interested but not ready to subscribe? Sign-up for our free monthly email newsletter with curated site content and a new issue email announcement that we send every two months.

No, thanks!