Connected Things: The Past and Present of IoT

Entrepreneurs, High Technology, Innovation Posted May 9, 2016 by chenpr

Years ago I worked with a company that was a pioneer in what was then known as system-on-chip networking. NetSilicon had made its mark connecting office printers to desktop computers via LAN. For all you kids out there, it wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to print a document from your computer you had to save it to a floppy disk, walk to a printer, insert the disk, find the document and… voila. Sounds tedious, but before that was the typewriter, so keep that in perspective.

Thing was, the implications for industrial networking were immediately evident and NetSilicon carved out a nice little embedded systems niche. The company’s CEO was a tall, cantankerous character named Cornelius “Pete” Peterson. Pete had a penchant for wearing bright red pants long before they were in vogue, and who started each day rowing a scull on the Charles. He was as brilliant as he could be brusque and he had a vision for the technology his company was peddling: within five years, networked devices would be commonplace.

Illustration from Enchanted Objects (David Rose)

Illustration from Enchanted Objects (David Rose)

We wrote a paper expounding on that vision and tried to get people to hear our story, but few people outside of the industrial world were convinced. They wanted simple examples of what connected appliances could do and how regular folks would benefit, and then got hung up on their own imaginations. What good would a networked toaster be? Who would buy one?

That’s the problem with trying to talk vision with the blind, I suppose. If a million dollar piece of industrial equipment starts to break down, of course a system that can communicate the problem and enable maintenance intervention makes sense. But, if that hypothetical toaster goes on the blink, you just get a new one.

Every year we’d peddle that five-year vision as if it were new; and it was to most people. But, it was still more than a few years before the iPhone and the consumer cloud and mobile applications. Even if I’d been smart enough to think of a nifty name like “Internet of Things” it would have had no meaningful context.

That was more than 15 years ago—an eternity in tech. Which is to say that, no matter what anyone writes in their press release or marketing collateral, the only thing that’s really new about the so-called Internet of Things is the name (and the IoT acronym). But, that’s an important development.

Fast forward to 2016. Because of the trend toward consumerization, everyone gets what IoT is. And instead of a fixation on connected toasters, people are talking about smart climate control and autonomous vehicles and interconnected medical devices and inventory management and… let the imagination run wild.

IoT in Manufacturing Panel at Connected Things 2016

IoT in Manufacturing Panel at Connected Things 2016

Now, you can get 500 people to come to an event like the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge’s Connected Things 2016 and hear during this Smart Cities panel about how internet-enabled sensors are helping cities operate more efficiently and more safely by managing traffic and parking, monitoring sewers and trash. And by reducing the energy used by street lights by as much as 30 percent because they know when they need to be illuminated and when they can shut themselves off. Gunshot detection systems can help police and first responders get to precise locations faster. City workers can fix and maintain facilities and infrastructure more efficiently, and provide more responsive services to citizens.

It’s fascinating to have had a front-row seat for IoT’s rise from my previous affiliation with NetSilicon at the turn of the century to the work I’m doing with the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council and the aforementioned MIT Enterprise Forum today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring with it in the world of IoT; maybe we’ll have IP toast after all?


(For more information on David Rose and his book, Enchanted Objects, visit