Last week, IoT blogger and journalist Stacey Higginbotham tweeted a fairly innocuous query. “Serious question: Do you think a printer is an IoT device?” What resulted was a prime example of Twitter at its best. Across a few days, the tweet generated an impressive conversation. It generated decent insights, some funny retorts, musings on whether or not hot dogs qualify as sandwiches and a marginal share of utter nonsense. Oh, and it wouldn’t be Twitter without a sprinkling of well-worn memes.

Reviewing the responses, there were a number of common themes about how to define an IoT device. Some make sense. Some don’t. In the end, however, they provide a clear explanation for why, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we will cease talking about IoT as market segment.

Understandably, this last comment (the end of IoT as we know it) might seem a little startling. In any case, I’ll return to it. Promise. But, first, let’s look at some of the arguments made around printers and IoT which hold water.

Connected versus not connected. This is an easy one. Without some form of connectivity, you don’t really have a network, internet or otherwise. You simply have a thing.

Connection: internet or local. This one is a little tougher. A number of folks said the device had to be reachable over the internet. The public internet. If you are taking the I in IoT literally, this makes sense. But, if you are thinking about real-world use cases, then there are many IoT devices we’d never want touching the internet. Industrial modules and devices, for example, which are mission-critical and don’t need to be accessed by anyone outside the enterprise. They might form part of a local, regional or global network, just not be connected to the internet. Do we discount those?

Connection: wireless against fixed. This is another easy one. Some of the replies to the original question argued that a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection would make the printer an IoT device. A wired connection, however, would mean that it’s not. This is silly. While (networked) connectivity is critical to IoT, the type of connectivity shouldn’t be. There are plenty of sensors that we’d consider part of IoT that are connected with wired media. And there are plenty of IoT use cases which may require the performance (latency, bandwidth, coverage) of wired connections. Industrial automation via 5G? Yep, it’s commonly cited as an IoT use case. But if it needs to be done with a wired connection? Would that mean it’s not IoT?

Existing or new creation. Among the answers to Higginbotham’s query was: “Printers have existed as a category of devices for years, long before IoT came into being”. For some, this simple fact removes printers from the realm of IoT. In theory, the same should hold for smart TVs, connected cars, and fitness trackers (anyone remember the pedometer?). The legacy, or age, of a device category doesn’t make sense as an IoT qualifier.

General purpose or single function. In an effort to deal with things like tablets or smartphones (which most people wouldn’t count as IoT), the multi-purpose nature of a device was suggested as an IoT litmus test. With sensors, smart locks and location trackers in one camp (IoT) and PC-like devices in another (not IoT), it works. Now, throw in smart watches, smart TVs (with app stores), or multi-function printers, and it gets a little fuzzier.

Hackable to mine cryptocurrency. Okay, this was my favourite. While obviously tongue-in-cheek, there are a few implications here: connected, running an OS of some sort, open to security threats. Pretty comprehensive and elegant if you think about it.

Regardless of how you categorise connected printers, or how you define IoT, there’s a bigger-picture message here. The definition of what’s included in the IoT is not black or white. It’s fluid. And, it’s going to get even more fluid as time goes by and we connect legacy categories of devices, we connect things with all manner of access technologies and we stop thinking about whether or not something is connected at all, because almost everything that can be connected will be.

I understand that this won’t be happening any time soon. But when it does, IoT will simply be part of how we run our businesses and daily lives.

Does that mean IoT will cease to exist as a distinct concept? Yes. Connectivity and analysis of things will continue, but will simply be part of the fabric of our businesses and everyday lives. For many people, this is already the case. As a colleague recently suggested, the winemaker using sensors and a wireless network (public or private) to monitor grape production doesn’t call what they’re doing IoT, it’s simply modern farming. Of course, for anyone marketing, selling, and writing about IoT, this might seem sad. It’s not. It’s a sign that IoT will finally have achieved its full potential, backed by the access technologies, platforms, silicon, and analytics solutions being deployed and perfected today.

– Peter Jarich – head of GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.