What is the Internet of Things?

June 29, 2020
Written by
Reviewed by
Matt Makai

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What is the Internet of Things?

When computers began to enter our homes 40 years ago, the idea of having a mobile computer in our pockets seemed like a futuristic dream. Thanks to Moore’s Law, and the mass adoption of the smartphone, we have unlimited access to information. Anything we might want to know is just a few clicks away — any time, any place. Now, the internet can be accessed via even the most mundane of objects with the rapid spread of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The Internet of Things is the connection of generally non-computing objects to the internet. This connection allows everyday objects to send and receive data.

Sounds a little bit broad, right? IoT encompasses everything from smart refrigerators and home security systems, to electric scooters, fleet tracking, and even waste management — and it’s expanding every day. From looking at the contents of your fridge while grocery shopping to sharing health data via the touchscreen on your watch, the internet and connectivity are everywhere. We’ve even seen people create mailbox sensors that tell them when mail has been delivered using IoT.

Having unlimited access to information has made our lives easier and has changed the ways that we interact with the world around us.

The Internet of Things and You

Having access to devices and technologies that are internet-enabled means having unprecedented connection between people, both personally and professionally. For consumers, IoT can mean having the ability to ensure your front door is locked and that your porch lights come on before the sun goes down. For many, this is already the reality. It can also mean checking your fridge’s contents from your phone, or preheating your oven remotely from another room in your house. Out in the world, it means renting a scooter to get to your meeting a few blocks away via the app on your phone, or grabbing a snack in a cashierless grocery store. As the Internet of Things becomes more accessible in communities around the world, our everyday lives continue to rely on technology.

How Big is the Internet of Things?

When we try to conceptualize the size and scale of the Internet of Things, we’re likely to underestimate the scope of what can be connected. The Internet of Things encompasses (almost) everything with the capacity to connect to the internet. People and companies are problem-solving and finding efficiencies in everyday life, creating new ways to constantly connect with data.

Experts believe that in 2020, a range of approximately 30 billion to 200 billion devices and “online objects” will be connected to the internet and play a role in the Internet of Things. Those are mind-blowing numbers!

In 2019, the Internet of Things was forecasted to hit $212 billion on the whole as an industry. In 2020, forecasts predict an increase to around $240 billion. By 2025, the Internet of Things may be worth upwards of $1 trillion.

These trends illustrate that the Internet of Things is not going anywhere - its steady growth trend promises an interesting future that we’re sure to keep an eye on.

Internet of Things Devices

The sheer number of diverse devices associated with the Internet of Things is unsurprisingly vast. If you can dream it, someone’s probably given it an internet connection. From wearable tech, to smart homes and healthcare, the Internet of Things is already ingrained into our everyday lives.

Wearable Tech

One of the most familiar examples of the Internet of Things is the smartwatch. Although smartwatches are not a new concept, the modern smartwatch seemed to gain momentum in popular culture in 2013 with the release of the Samsung Gear and again in 2015 with the Apple Watch. In 2019 alone, Apple sold 30 million Apple Watches, whereas the Swiss watch industry sold 21.1 million analog devices. Smartwatches are becoming more and more common, which means they aren’t going away any time soon.

Before the modern smartwatch craze, wearable tech dominated the fitness world with products like Fitbit. Fitbit launched its first device in 2009, which tracked the number of calories users burned and the amount of steps they took everyday. While this first device did not yet sync to smartphones, it had the capability to sync with MacOSX and Windows operating systems. Since its original release, Fitbit has continued to develop devices with connective capacities, including high-end fitness trackers and smartwatches.

Wearable tech also lives in the world of smart athletics. Over the last four years, the NFL has been integrating RFID tags into players’ protective pads and gear, as well as the actual footballs themselves. Teams use the data collected for personal training purposes as well as better understanding which plays are most effective.

The Internet of Things has also expanded into the world of independent living for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. New GPS insoles can help care workers and families keep track of their loved ones, especially when they leave certain geographic boundaries.

Everyday Innovations

Philips Hue Smart Bulbs are common home products that we can use as an example of IoT at home. Philips Hue Smart Bulbs are light bulbs and products that allow users to control the color and brightness of their lights through the Philips Hue app, over bluetooth, and via home artificial intelligence systems such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.

The Internet of Things and Healthcare

The world of medicine and healthcare has been revolutionized by the Internet of Things, and the potential for new life-changing and preventative innovations is vast. While not yet perfect, bluetooth-enabled medical devices are making huge strides. Bluetooth stethoscopes, blood glucose monitors, and even pacemakers are on the rise. We don’t yet know the full extent to which the Internet of Things will change the healthcare industry long-term, but it is already changing the way that patients and healthcare professionals interact. Remote healthcare and telemedicine existed before the outbreak of COVID19, but have since boomed, especially for the elderly, immunocompromised, and those living with chronic illness. While the sudden increase in demand for telemedicine has forced the healthcare industry to change virtually overnight, the Internet of Things has helped facilitate this shift and made healthcare more accessible to those who cannot leave their homes.

On the software side of the Internet of Things in healthcare, there’s an app for just about everything. Apple iOS provides a health-tracking app across its mobile devices that can be used for tasks as simple as counting your steps throughout the day and tracking sleep patterns to the integration of health records with third-party wellness apps. In developing this app and others like it, Apple and software-based wellness companies are acknowledging the move towards a more digital industry and are providing more efficient, easy ways to track health data.

Combining data from health and wellness apps with the data collected by Internet of Things devices, we can better understand health conditions and how they affect us on an individual level. One of the greatest advantages of the Internet of Things is the ability to collect and examine data in real time. In healthcare, this access to real-time information can be life saving.

Smart Kitchens and Food

LG’s ThinQ smart appliances (including a refrigerator, oven, dishwasher, and other accessories) made headlines in 2018, but the smart fridge frequently steals the spotlight. So what makes the fridge so special? Consumers were fascinated by the large touchscreen on the door and its web access, as well as its compatibility with Amazon’s Alexa. The screen has a “transparent” mode that allows owners to see the contents of the fridge without opening its doors, as well as a remote function providing a live view of the contents via smartphone. The fridge’s internet access allows customization of the fridge’s screen including adding expiration dates and tags to specific food items. Owners can also utilize a notification feature that warns them when certain foods are about to go bad. The smart device also has software that analyzes the ingredients and contents in the fridge and suggests recipes accordingly. Pretty incredible, right? The application of the Internet of Things to our food and grocery shopping routines doesn’t stop there.

In 2018, Amazon launched Amazon Go, a chain of convenience stores that offer a cashierless shopping experience. Customers scan their Amazon Go app on their way into the store, grab their groceries, and then leave without stopping at a register. The Amazon Go stores and products are equipped with a complex network of sensors and cameras that talk to the user’s app as items are removed from the shelves. As customers leave, their Amazon account is automatically charged for their items.

This application of the Internet of Things is complex because there are quite a few moving parts to contend with, including the removal and replacement of items as well as the purchase of multiples. Other obstacles include the usual suspects that accompany retail, including interaction (or lack thereof) between humans on the premises. The stores still maintain on-premises staffing used to help stock shelves and recommend products, but are otherwise entirely digital. Amazon has recently expanded on this concept and in February 2020 opened its first Amazon Go Grocery, offering a wide variety of fresh, local products.


Micromobility can be defined as the use of scooters, ebikes, rented bicycles, electric skateboards, and other smaller modes of transportation to move around cities and local environments. Usually, these modes of transportation are accessed via an app and charge customers per use or by the hour, which means they typically can’t be used at all until activated online. Much like the Internet of Things itself, the micromobility industry continues to grow and change and create new ways to meet customers in the market for a quick getaway.

The Internet of Things and Business

Beyond the seemingly endless applications of smart tech in our homes, the Internet of Things is drastically changing the ways that businesses and industries operate. From smart cities to smart manufacturing, the Internet of Things is a gamechanger when applied at scale.

With the rapid creation and adoption of new technologies within IoT, businesses now have the ability to track their assets in unprecedented detail. From tracking minute details about their fleets — including the monitoring of drivers’ average speeds and location of vehicles to the documentation and remedying of equipment malfunctions and predictive maintenance — businesses have more capacity than ever to create efficiencies.

The collection of data at this scale is groundbreaking and has tangible applications both now and for the future. Whether businesses are restructuring their fleets or are digging into the analytics on their micromobile app, this data provides invaluable information that 20 years ago would have been difficult to collect. Now, it can be done with the implementation of the right program. Combined with the indelible force of cloud computing and access, who’s to say where the potential of the Internet of Things stops?

Industrial Internet of Things

Industrial IoT generally refers to the industrial applications of the Internet of Things, which is to say any product or thing that makes manufacturing and industry “smart.” This includes sensors, smart equipment, and software, especially regarding predictive maintenance, and the integrated use of robotics.

Think about a traditional manufacturing setting with traditional or analog equipment. In this setting, regular maintenance by a group of engineers and specialists would be required in order to keep production running. However, when the industrial Internet of Things throws the concept of predictive maintenance into the mix, this group of engineers and specialists are needed for something new: analyzing the patterns of equipment malfunctions and regulating wear and tear on the micro level.

Predictive Maintenance

Predictive maintenance is generally what it sounds like; the ability of smart machines, software, or sensors to measure the amount of wear and tear on a piece of equipment and predict when it will need maintenance. Predictive maintenance is not a new concept, but combined with the Internet of Things, it has massive potential to change the way we do business, including a possible reduction in machine damage. A reduction in machine damage could in turn create more efficient production and assembly because, hypothetically, the amount of time needed to repair or even replace equipment would dramatically decrease. This allows more time for actual production to take place.

Smart Real Estate

The Internet of Things is shaking up the world of real estate by changing the way we buy and sell homes. The concept of smart real estate is quite broad, like the Internet of Things itself, but can be boiled down to one main idea: make the home-buying and selling process more simple for homeowners and prospective homeowners. This means changes from the ground up on the part of realtors and property management companies, like incorporating 360-degree cameras to help prospective homeowners view homes remotely and integrating predictive maintenance and energy efficient software into homes on the market.

Let’s Talk 5G

5G, or the fifth generation of cellular wireless technology, is taking the world of tech by storm. While we’re hearing a lot about 5G right now and are watching wireless networks race to support it, we may not see all of the potential software applications of it for another year or so. Although we don’t yet know what the adoption of 5G will look like across the board, we do know that the introduction of 5G will push the Internet of Things to continue to grow.

The biggest predicted impact of 5G will be its speed, estimated to “be fast enough to download a full-length HD movie in seconds.” If this turns out to be the reality, there is massive potential for product improvement and new development in the tech industry, for both businesses and individuals alike.

5G could allow businesses using the Internet of Things to collect big data with better accuracy and ease, manage assets by using sensors for tasks like fleet tracking and predictive maintenance, and improve smart city infrastructures. At home, 5G could mean that individuals have better access to technologies like self-driving cars, advanced internet-enabled home security systems, and breakthroughs in the healthcare sector of the Internet of Things.

That being said, we won’t really know what the true impact of 5G will be on the tech industry and the Internet of Things for a few years. Before 4G, apps like Uber and Lyft couldn’t exist because the network wasn’t fast enough yet. Like the 4G applications we now use on a daily basis, 5G will provide the speed necessary to create the next generation of tech, including self-driving cars and new use cases for AR, VR, and drone technology. For now, we look forward to seeing how the Internet of Things grows with the advantage of high(er) speed connections.

Privacy Concerns with the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things presents a new set of challenges in terms of privacy and information security that traditional computers are already well-equipped to face. There have been several recorded cases of IoT devices being hacked into and tampered with over recent years, including home security systems and cameras.

Internet of Things devices are notorious for collecting massive amounts of data, hence its relevance in the world of big data. However, this mass collection of information is also a security risk. A security breach of data at this scale could have substantial consequences. In this vein, there is also cause for concern about maintaining GDPR privacy standards. Because it can often be unclear how IoT devices use consumer data, companies could risk non-compliance cases.

So how do we combat these security issues while still maintaining the upward trajectory of the Internet of Things as an industry? The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) claims that the best thing that Internet of Things companies can do is update their privacy policies. In doing this, they can give their customers and users the chance to understand how their data is being used.

Twilio + Super SIM

Twilio’s Super SIM delivers scalable Internet of Things connectivity to developers all over the world. Super SIM allows you to control your network quality internationally, scale infinitely, and automate your operations with our APIs.

How to Use Twilio to Build an IoT Solution

To get started with Super SIM, you’ll need to order the SIMs via the Twilio Console. Once they have shipped, they are automatically added to your Twilio account. In the meantime, you’ll need to set up a Network Access profile to connect your SIM to global networks. Next you’ll need to create a Fleet to set and track your Super SIMs’ behaviors. When the Network Access profile and Fleet are set up, activate your SIM and you’ll be ready to build.  

There is no limit to what we can create and connect using the Internet of Things, and you don’t have to have all of the answers to be a visionary. We can’t wait to see what you build.

Brooke Isaacs is a Content Marketing Associate at Twilio SendGrid contributing to the blog and writing other digital content. Brooke is a self-proclaimed pop culture geek, and when she’s not writing she can be found nerding out about her favorite TV shows and books. Brooke can be reached at bisaacs [at] twilio.com