The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is still really confusing to a lot of people. Is my car part of it? What about my fridge and washing machine? How about medical devices? The traditional definition of the IoT is all of the above and much more. According to a number of analyst firms, there will be 30 to 50 billion devices on the IoT by 2020. The challenge then becomes how to keep track of all those devices and make it easy to interact with them, and, at an even more basic level, how to even know what’s out there.
Leave it to Google to launch the Physical Web project, which has the very lofty goal of creating a network of devices that are accessible through a Web browser. In essence, Google wants to give every device on the IoT its own URL. With tens of billions of sensors, devices and other ‘things’ this could turn complicated very quickly. But the end result, it’s hoped, is to make it easier to interact with kiosks, vending machines, rental cars and anything else with an Internet-enabled sensor or device without having to download a special app for each and every use case.
For example, you want to use your smartphone to pay for parking or buy a soda from a vending machine. If Google has its way all of that would be possible regardless of device and independent of operating system or apps; it would actually leverage native apps but hide any complexity from the user so they end up with a seamless experience of getting offers on their device when entering a store and being able to take advantage of them immediately.
Google’s project, which it’s touting as open and available to anyone to join, takes its place alongside other efforts to standardize the IoT, including Google’s own Thread, which is working on a standard way for home automation devices to communicate with one another. Other groups such as the ITU and IEEE are also heavily involved in work to bring some order to the IoT.
While this sounds like something out of a futuristic movie, where personal ads are beamed in front of us as we walk into a mall or scanning a movie poster will let us purchase tickets to see that film, how do we make sure that only properly authenticated devices can talk to one another?
Google’s project is meant to be used in public spaces, where devices can broadcast their URLs in the clear so anyone can see them. But if you extend that concept to the home or workplace, you run into trouble. Google suggests having logins, a token that would constantly change a device’s URL and other schemes, but they are more suggestions rather than being baked into the Physical Web project.
None other than Vint Cert, widely regarded as the father of the Internet, recently urged developers to keep security top of mind as they work on IoT projects. And considering he holds the title of vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, we hope that bodes well for security and privacy on the IoT.
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