What are internet of things devices called?

Each computer hardware form factor has gone through several names before one started to obviously dominate. Palmtop, PDA, handheld computer, smartphone, notebook, laptop, clamshell, netbook, portable computer, tablet, slate, touchpad computer, “phablet”.

What should the new class of devices being created under the “internet of things” banner be referred to as?

There appear to be several contenders, with no obvious winner at the moment — indeed, browsing a single piece of internet of things press coverage yields a multitude of names: devices, connected devices, smart devices, devices, devices, smart sensors, device, connected [x], smart [x], things, gadgets, smart device.

Animal Metaphors

Scott Jenson has an interesting take on naming device classes using bear, bat and bee alliterative animal metaphors (and who doesn’t love alliterative animal metaphors!), which might prove to do an effective job classifying different sorts of device based on our interactions with them, but are too vague to use to refer to devices in general.

I do think there is some value in the use of animal or plant metaphors for IoT devices and robotics, as their physical presence in our lives, as well as some of their demands and our interactions with them, can be quite similar to the way we interact with animals and plants. Both connected devices/domestic robots and pets demand a certain amount of attention, a place to live and some freedom to move around. They require feeding, and can usually indicate when they need to be fed. Both devices and animals can bring comfort — consider for example how both dogs and smoke alarms can announce if there is an immediate danger — but an animal requires constant attention, whereas smoke alarms in their current form would irritate us no end if they weren’t invisible when not needed.

Connected Devices

Wolfram are heavily investing in the term “connected devices”, which appears to be a fairly popular term given its use on tech news outlets. It’s rather broad in scope, and sometimes used to refer to devices connected to a particular device rather than devices in general, which I suspect counts towards some of the 514000 google.com results for “connected device”.

Ubiquitous Computing

As well as giving us the term “ubiquitous computing”, Mark Weiser defines three classes of device: tabs, pads and boards. These classes are defined by their physical size rather than the intricacies of how we interact with them. The prototypes of the smaller pad and tab devices were implemented as graphical terminals for applications hosted on more powerful devices elsewhere, but as this was most likely due to historical technology constraints I don’t believe this should be considered a defining characteristic. Similarly to the bears/bats/bees metaphor, these terms are more suitable for classifying devices rather than as a general name.

Smart Devices

The term “smart device” is prevalent in ubiquitous computing literature and Scott Jenson’s writings, as well having 620000 matches on google.com and a healthy wikipedia page. It’s a pity it sounds like cringeworthy marketing-speak for “it doesn’t actually do anything interesting BUT we added BUTTONS AND LIGHTS AND STUFF”, or, in Samsung’s case, “we stuck an iPad-ripoff to this fridge and now it costs $3000”.

“Smart” is often used as a prefix on existing names (smart-phone, smart-board, smart-fridge, smart-toaster) to upgrade their status and differentiate them from their older, apparently dumber counterparts. This usage matches the general connected, ambient, intelligent connotations of “smart” with a specific object or interaction which people are already familiar with. Therefore, for the time being (pending a less cringeworthy term), I’m going to refer to the set of IoT devices as “smart devices”.

Human Relevance

“smart device”, “connected device”, “smart sensors”, “bears”, “bats”, “bees”, “tab“, “pad”, “board” — none of these names express very much about the way humans interact with the devices they refer to in the same way “laptop” or “portable computer” do. Likewise, “wearable technology” is explicit about the way humans interact with it.

Ambient” and “calm” technology is defined in terms of how humans interact with it on a more abstract level than names like “laptop” which are intrinsically tied to physical form factor, and as such are more suitable for talking about how a device behaves rather than what it is — e.g. no-one says “I’m building a calm device with this Arduino”. Perhaps it is here that animal or plant metaphors can bridge the gap between how things behave and what they are.

It seems that in order to to better name — and thus communicate about — smart devices we must consider what they are in terms of how we, both as individuals and collectively, interact with them.

Thanks to Brian Suda for proofreading and insightful discussion preceding this post.