Technology research firm Gartner predicts that there will be 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things (IoT) by 2020. In the latest Budget, the UK Government pledged £40 million for research into how to make the IoT work for the country, calling it the ‘the next stage of the information revolution’. It is clearly set to be a big deal – but why has interest in the IoT taken off at such a pace this year?

As a concept, the IoT was first documented by technology pioneer Kevin Ashton in 1999, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy and smartphones were not even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. The idea of building a world where machine-to-machine conversations resulted in actions which would benefit mankind dominated the debate among digital visionaries for a number of years. However, these discussions failed to come to any kind of practical fruition, despite the advent of RFID and NFC which, on the face of it, had the potential to make the IoT a reality.

In fact, while industrial implementation kick-started this kind of connectivity (for example, agricultural equipment tracking and field operation devices for search and rescue) it didn’t really become a viable option for the consumer until Apple revolutionised mobile technology with the first iPhone - effectively placing a significant amount of computing power into the hands of users which could help them manage day-to-day activities via apps. This mobilisation of data and the accompanying freedom to use it aligned with individual taste has revived interest in the IoT as a framework with a future.

Amazon takes the lead in retail

The evidence is in the market – Amazon has recently taken the first step towards providing users with the ability to do more than just simply use their phone as a remote control. Combining the might of its retail capabilities with the speed and efficiency of today’s mobile connectivity, its new Dash product allows Amazon Fresh customers to scan or dictate items into the exclusive WiFi-enabled Dash device for automatic purchase and delivery. This is a genuine advance towards making use of the information that surrounds us to simplify practical tasks – an aspect which is essential to the success of any technological innovation.

IBM takes the lead in investment

Recognising the potential of the IoT is one thing, advancing its cause is another - and requires both commitment and cash. Tech giant IBM has just announced that it will be investing $3 billion over the next four years in the development of its new IoT unit, complementing its existing Smarter Planet initiative. With more than 2,000 dedicated consultants, developers and researchers, the unit will explore every aspect of the IoT, with its own cloud platform for industries, Bluemix platform-as-a-service for developers, and a partner ecosystem to allow the best ideas and applications to flourish.

IBM has already got the ball rolling with The Weather Company, which uses sensors from aircraft, drones, smartphones and buildings to deliver highly accurate micro-weather forecasts.

With this kind of heavyweight backing, the future is bright for a connected network of objects which has real-world benefits.

Data – both fuel and driver

Naturally, the IoT runs on data – information gathered from barcodes, tags, beacons and other embedded sensors and digitised content without which it would not be able to function. But this is just one half of the equation – the vast amount of data gathered from connected objects will drive profound changes in the way industries operate and  give a whole new meaning to the term ‘big data’. Handling all of the information generated by the IoT and translating it into useful intelligence will require a new approach to data centres as well – from ‘mothership’ data repositories to regional hubs and micro-centres for speedy transmission of local information.

Anything that needs to be monitored, manufactured, or marketed stands to benefit from the growth of the IoT – from health to the environment, to retail and education. In the ‘grand scheme of things’ the IoT will only get larger.

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