In this retrospective article, Anne Gillard takes us to the early days of the Internet of Things and the first connected devices. With the number of devices expected to triple in growth in the next few years, we look back at the last 25 years of inventions and enablers that have brought us to the tipping point.

Connected devices are everywhere. Our phones, watches, vehicles, and even our home appliances are becoming connected to the internet and communicating with each other. With Fitbit’s activity trackers, you can see the number of steps you take, your resting and active heart rates, and even how many hours you slept last night. With Nest’s WiFi-enabled thermostats, you can save on your energy bill by programming different temperatures for different times of the day or week. Phillip’s wireless LED lights allow you to easily control the color and intensity of your lighting to create the perfect ambiance. Yet connected devices are not just beneficial in and of themselves. By collecting and sharing information about your health, schedule, habits, and interests, your home or office environment will anticipate your needs and wants. Together with cloud-based applications, big data analytics, and machine learning, the networking of these devices is set to transform our lives.

The Beginning of IoT and the First Connected Devices

When we talk about connected devices, though, we really need to talk about the Internet of Things, a term first coined by entrepreneur and technology expert Peter T. Lewis in 1985. Even though it’s been over 30 years, his definition remains accurate: “the integration of people, processes, and technology with connectable devices and sensors to enable remote monitoring, status, manipulation, and evaluation of trends of such devices”[i].  

The early development of connected devices was a slow process, one that gathered pace with the growth of the internet, and drew from the research in related fields. The history of connected devices is not uniform or tidy, and is best understood as a patchwork of small inventions and minor breakthroughs, with contributions from academic and corporate bodies – from folks at universities such as MIT and Cambridge, and their counterparts at companies like IBM, Siemens, and Cisco.

For some, the original connected device was Olivetti Research’s “active badge”, which used infrared signals to communicate a person’s location within a building. Each badge periodically transmitted a unique ID to a number of receivers, allowing computers to log the location and movement of data of each respective user[ii]. Developed between 1989 and 1992, the active badge system is often cited as a starting point for location tracking technology. In 1990, John Romkey, in cahoots with his friend Simon Hacket, created the first internet ‘device’: a connected toaster. Featured at that year’s Interop conference, the toaster was linked to a computer and could be switched on and off using Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) over an IP network[iii]. This was technology that John was familiar with – having worked on the first implementation of TCP/IP at MIT, and later with IBM. While its creation was not as formal as the active badge system, this kind of half-haphazard tinkering was not unusual during the early years of IoT development.

As the internet was starting to take off, the buzz surrounding the far-reaching applications of connection began shifting from the academic sphere to the commercial. Recognizing the potential of wireless connectivity, in 1995, Siemens set up a dedicated department to develop and launch a product called M2M One, a technology that enabled machines to communicate over wireless networks. Largely designed for commercial use, M2M One had applications for POS terminals, vehicle telematics, and remote monitoring[iv]. In the years that followed, many other companies entered the space. Innovators and researchers started to look at effective ways to monetize these new technologies and capabilities in wireless technology, and M2M in particular.

The first connected devices available for consumers were expensive, difficult to use, and quite often, failed to attract buyers. The early 2000s saw the first internet-connected fridge from LG Electronics. With a retail price of over $20,000, it’s no wonder that it had limited success.

In 2002, Ambient Devices released the first “glanceable” device, which changed its display based on information - weather forecasts, market trends, traffic information - acquired over a wireless connection. Things were starting to pick up. In the same year, Nokia 3510 became the first mobile phone to provide GPRS internet services, marking the beginning of mobile data (with 3G and 4G to come!). And in 2006, the first HP Smart TVs were sold. The next year, Livescribe released its first Smart Pen, followed by Fitbit and its first activity tracker in 2009. By 2010, home automation began to take off, with Nest launching its connected thermostat, providing consumers with sleek, user-friendly home automation devices. This is part of what makes IoT so compelling: from forks and cups, to desks and chairs, to traffic lights, jet engines, and oil rigs, most everything can be connected. As connection becomes increasingly affordable and the components easier to develop, connected devices will become more prevalent, integrating themselves almost seamlessly into our lives.

The story of connected devices is not complete, however, without acknowledging the roles of improved wireless M2M connectivity, enhanced computing capabilities, and better access to and speed of the internet. Technological progress and improved network infrastructure paved the way for IoT and connected devices. Short-range wireless communications protocols such as Bluetooth, NFC, WiFi and ZigBee overcame the inconvenience of wires. Whilst more recently low-power, wide area network platforms such as LoRaWAN and Sigfox have delivered cost-effective connectivity to even more things in even more places.

IoT Today and Tomorrow

Given the level of technological innovation over the past decade – including the rapid advances in fixed and mobile broadband, and widespread adoption of mobile phones, laptops, and tablets – it should come as no surprise that we are on the brink of fully-connected lives. Gartner estimates that there are already over 4 billion consumer IoT devices. That number is expected to increase to more than 13 billion units by 2020, representing a $1.5 trillion-dollar global market[v].

IoT is not limited to consumer applications. On the commercial side, unit and revenue projections are close to those on the consumer side, with some 2 billion devices in use by enterprises, firms, agencies, and manufacturers today.

Connected Devices - IoT.jpg

Major corporations have recognized the opportunity that IoT presents, both as a sales opportunity and tool to improve their own operations. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Apple have developed or are developing their own proprietary IoT platforms and relevant solutions for consumers as well as businesses. Manufacturers like Rolls Royce are harnessing the power of big data and IoT to optimize engine performance, reduce fuel consumption, and minimize maintenance costs using predictive analytics. Oil and gas manufacturers like PG&E are monitoring petroleum supply assets, preempting mechanical failures or identifying pipeline leaks as they happen. While consumers enjoy ‘smarter’ living, businesses will harness the power of IoT to reduce costs and improve efficiency across a variety of use cases and industry-verticals. Those hesitant to invest in this space risk falling behind. By the same token, those that invest too early, or make poor development decisions, could sink enormous sums of money for negligible returns. As is often true of new technologies, timing is everything.

Delivering on a Promise

The promise behind the inventions of IoT and connected devices was to make our lives easier by making our everyday devices smarter. From simple applications for comfort and leisure, to use cases delivering the very real benefits of energy savings, emissions reduction, healthcare improvement, and security enhancement, slowly but surely, we’re seeing this promise being realized. Many of us have already experienced benefits, and consumers and businesses alike are embracing these new technologies. So although the growth in connected devices was slow over the last quarter of a century, expect to see explosive growth in the coming years. <>

Author: Anne Gillard

To mark Cartesian’s 25 years in the telecoms, media, and technology sector, we asked our consultants to reflect on industry topics and write about how they have changed over the last few decades. Click here to receive your copy of our anniversary eBook: 25 Years – A retrospective on innovation in the telecoms, media, and technology sector


[i] “Correcting IoT History”, Chetan Sharma.

[ii] Rhodes, Bradley. “A brief history of wearable computing.”

[iii] “The Internet Toaster”.

[iv] Press, Gil. “A Very Short History Of The Internet Of Things.”

[v] “Gartner Says 6.4 Billion Connected “Things” Will Be in Use in 2016, Up 30 Percent From 2015.”