What Is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

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Find out how the Internet of Things works and why it’s important.

[Featured Image] A glowing blue abstract depiction of data points connecting to represent the Internet of Things

What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a network of physical devices that can transfer data to one another without human intervention. IoT devices are not limited to computers or machinery; they can include anything with a sensor assigned a unique identifier (UID). The primary goal of the IoT is to create self-reporting devices that can communicate with each other (and users) in real-time. 

Who coined the term Internet of Things?

The IoT was named by computer scientist Kevin Ashton in 1999.


How does IoT work?

Here are a few components that make the Internet of Things work:

Internet of Things platform

An IoT platform manages device connectivity. It can be a software suite or a cloud service. The purpose of an IoT platform is to manage and monitor hardware, software, processing abilities, and application layers. 

Sensor technologies

IoT sensors, sometimes called smart sensors, convert real-world variables into data that devices can interpret and share. Many different types of sensors exist. For example, temperature sensors detect heat and convert temperature changes into data. Motion sensors detect movement by monitoring ultrasonic waves and triggering a desired action when those waves are interrupted. 

Unique identifiers

The core concept of the IoT is communication between devices and users. Unique identifiers (UIDs) establish the context of a device within the larger network to enable this communication. Identifiers are patterns, like numeric or alphanumeric strings. One example of a UID that you might be familiar with is an internet protocol (IP) address. They can identify a single device (instance identifier) or the class to which that device belongs (type identifier).

Internet connectivity 

Sensors can connect to cloud platforms and other devices through a host of internet network protocols. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning

Natural language processing (NLP) in IoT devices makes it easier for users to input information and interact with devices. Amazon Alexa is a common example of an IoT device that utilises NLP technology. Machine learning also enhances the analytical capabilities of IoT devices.

Internet of Things examples

You likely use IoT devices every day. The list below outlines a few IoT devices that you may be familiar with:

  • Smart home devices. Smart devices are interactive electronics that use wireless connections to understand user instructions. To an extent, smart home devices like thermostats and home security systems can work autonomously to assist with daily tasks. For example, you may program your smart thermostat to adjust automatically to a cooler setting before you arrive home from work. You may also receive a security camera notification that informs you that someone is at the door when you are not home. 

  • Wearable technologies. One of the most common examples of the Internet of Things is smartwatches. Wearable IoT technology like Fitbits and Apple Watches connect to other devices (like your smartphone) to share data. They typically also connect to the internet to track GPS locations. 

  • Personal medical devices. Personal medical devices like pacemakers are also IoT devices. Remote medical devices can help monitor and share a patient's vital signs or detect early signs of health issues for fast intervention. 

  • Autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars and connected vehicles rely on the internet to share real-time information. Sensors throughout the vehicle help map its surroundings, transmit camera footage, and respond to traffic signals.

You can learn more about connected devices and build your IoT device with the University of Colorado Boulder’s online specialisation, Hands-On Internet of Things.

3 types of IoT applications

Billions of devices are connected to the internet, collecting and sharing information. They range from smart home setups like cooking appliances and smoke detectors to military-grade surveillance equipment. The list below outlines a few of the most common types of IoT applications.

1. Consumer IoT

Consumer IoT refers to personal and wearable devices that connect to the internet. These devices are often referred to as smart devices.

2. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

The IIoT is a system of interconnected devices in the industrial sector. Manufacturing machinery and devices used for energy management are a part of the industrial Internet of Things. 

3. Commercial IoT

Commercial IoT refers to tools and systems used outside of the home. Businesses and health care organisations leverage commercial IoT for auditable data trails and consumer management. 

IoT jobs

Many different career paths exist for someone who wants to work with the IoT. Explore a few of the most common job titles with the list below.

  • Technical IoT project manager. Technical IoT project managers provide organisations with technical expertise and team leadership. They also design and implement new methods to increase efficiency.

  • IoT architect. IoT architects design and create IoT solutions to solve business problems. 

  • IoT engineer. IoT engineers develop and manage IoT hardware, software, platforms, and systems. 

With An Introduction to Programming the IoT specialisation from the University of California, Irvine, you can learn more about IoT development and prepare for a career in IoT.

Why are IoT solutions important?

The IoT is essential to business. It makes it possible to collect and analyse massive amounts of data in real time. IoT devices also enable automation. They allow people to gain more control over their environments, health, and even safety. For example, smart home security systems can automatically assess threats like burglary or carbon monoxide poisoning and call for help. 

Personal medical devices like glucose monitors continually track glucose levels. This eliminates traditional record-keeping and protects patients with alerts when glucose levels become problematic. If you want to learn more about IoT networks and emerging technologies, you can earn a certificate from Yonsei University in IoT Wireless & Cloud Computing Emerging Technologies.

Benefits of the Internet of Things

Before the introduction of the IoT, devices could only collect and share information with human interaction. Today, the IoT enables lower operational costs, increased safety and productivity, and improved customer experience. Here are a few notable pros of the Internet of Things:

  • Automation. Removing the need to perform mundane tasks like turning the thermostat on and off or locking doors increases efficiency and quality of life.

  • Conservation. Automation makes managing energy consumption and water usage easier without human oversight or error.

  • Big data analytics. Information previously difficult to collect and analyse can be tracked effortlessly with the Internet of Things.

You can learn more about how the IoT benefits certain industries in the sections below. 

Potential drawbacks of IoT

Managing large amounts of data poses certain risks and disadvantages. For example, IoT devices mean more human intervention through network and device monitoring. Some security researchers believe cybersecurity professionals may face an increased workload as the IoT grows. Here are a few more potential drawbacks of the Internet of Things:

  • Privacy concerns. Protecting the data mined by IoT devices can be challenging. Increased tracking threatens the confidentiality of the information we share over the Internet.

  • Security issues. Manufacturers are responsible for the security of individual devices. However, if manufacturers do not prioritise security measures, wireless network security could be compromised.

  • Bandwidth. Too many connected devices on a shared network result in slow internet speeds.

Get started.

As digitalisation in our society grows, a firm understanding of the IoT and how it works can set you up for success when entering digital industries. To take your first step, enroll in the online course Introduction to IoT and Embedded Systems on Coursera to start building your foundation.

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