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L’Internet des objets

Pierre-Jean Benghozi
Sylvain Bureau
Françoise Massit-Folléa

The Internet of Things

Chapter 1

Defining the Internet of Things

Texte intégral

1How can a definition be given to what does not yet exist ? The Internet of Things, as it is conceptualized by researchers or imagined by science-fiction writers such as Bruce Sterling, is not yet reality and if we try to define it accurately we risk rash predictions. In order to better comprehend this notion, let us first define the main principles of the IoT as given in research papers and reports on the subject.

Definitions gradually established

2Almost all agree that the Internet of Things is, if not the Internet of the Future, at least a fundamental property of tomorrow’s Internet. But no standard, unified and shared definition of the IoT has yet been formulated. Certain definitions stress first and foremost the technical aspects of the IoT, while others focus more on its uses and functionalities. The former are often difficult to understand for non-experts, while the latter are somewhat unconvincing as they fail to depict the concrete applications of everyday life.

A conceptual standpoint : the emergence of new identities for objects

  • 1 Anonymous. 2008. Internet of Things in 2020. Roadmap for the Future, 1.1 ed.: 27: Infso D.4 Network (...)

3The IoT is defined by some as “Things having identities and virtual personalities operating in smart spaces using intelligent interfaces to connect and communicate within social, environmental, and user contexts1. Others highlight the idea that the IoT is a revolution since it allows the connection of people and objects anywhere, any time and by anyone. These definitions, which focus on the ubiquitous property of the IoT, personify objects by endowing them with intelligence and an ability to communicate. However, they do not reflect the material dimension linked to the uses of the IoT.

Technically : an extension of addressing system and a convergence of identifiers

4Technically speaking, the IoT is an extension of the Internet naming system and demonstrates a convergence of digital identifiers2 in the sense that it is possible to identify digital information (URL website addresses, for instance) and physical elements (such as a pallet in a warehouse, or a sheep in a flock) in a standardized manner. Thanks to the use of electronic identification systems (RFID chips, Bluetooth processor and communication, etc.) identification is achieved directly : there is no manual keying in of the identification codes related to objects. With this type of system, the network reaches out to the object and thus creates a form of bridge between the physical and the virtual world.

Suggested definition

5In this study, we suggest coupling purely technical approaches with ones that are user-centred, and thus define the Internet of Things as a network of networks which enables the identification of digital entities and physical objects – whether inanimate (including plants) or animate (animals and human beings) – directly and without ambiguity, via standardized electronic identification systems and wireless mobile devices, and thus make it possible to retrieve, store, transfer and process data relating to them, with no discontinuity between the physical and virtual worlds.

Table 1 Major technological system necessary to the functioning of the IoT

Table 1 Major technological system necessary to the functioning of the IoT

6In this chapter, we will endeavour to clarify this definition. First, we will show that the IoT is a system composed not only of recent technological innovations but also of traditional solutions. Then we will examine the notion of a network of networks and the capacity of the IoT to extend the Internet to the physical world. Lastly, we will argue that a purely technical approach is unsatisfactory as the IoT is also a socio-technical system that will adopt different forms according to how our societies perceive and construct it.

The IoT as a system of systems

  • 3 IoT technologies are not completely new. The creation of this identification system – namely barcod (...)

7The IoT cannot be reduced to any one specific technology. Rather, it encompasses varied technical solutions (RFID, TCP/IP, mobile technologies, etc.) that enable the identification of objects and the retrieval, storage, processing and transfer of data not only in physical environments but also between the physical and virtual world. At present, the major concern is not so much to invent new technologies but to improve those that already exist3 and to better connect and integrate them.

8We list below the major types of solution that are necessary for the functioning of the IoT ; rather than describe all the components, we choose to centre the analysis on three that are deemed essential : RFID solutions, middleware, and the global EPC network.

RFID solutions

  • 4 In practice, the reader sends an electromagnetic wave. This wave creates a current in the tag anten (...)

9Many books and reports on how these solutions function have been published – here we will simply summarize the major points. RFID solutions belong to the category of automatic identification technology. They are generally used to supply an electronic identity to an inanimate or animate object. The abbreviation RFID encompasses a large range of technologies and applications that depend on parameters such as range, frequency band, price, size, and energy consumption. Moreover, beyond the mere tag or chip, the RFID system is composed of sensors, readers, and software to process collected information4. Although the functioning principle is always the same whatever the system context and complexity of use, various types of system are developed (open or closed) and different chip types (passive, active or semi-passive) can be implemented. These systems are presented in the table below :

10RFID solutions are also available in a variety of different frequencies. In short, there are four types of frequency : low (125 KHz), high (13,56 MHz), ultra-high (800-930 MHz) and hyper (2,45 and 5,8 GHz). Passive chips are never used with hyper frequency.

Table 2 Open and closed RFID systems

Table 2 Open and closed RFID systems

Table 3 Types of RFID chips used

Table 3 Types of RFID chips used


11This type of software has a crucial role in RFID solutions as it enables management of the interface between different systems. In the case of RFID solutions, middleware extracts RFID data collected in readers. It also enables data to be filtered, aggregated and transmitted once it has been communicated to company information systems such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Supply Chain Management (SCM) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM).

EPCglobal standardization

  • 5 EPC stands for Electronic Product Code.

12EPCglobal5 is the result of an agreement made in July 2003 between the AutoID Center, EAN international and the Uniform Code Council. EPCglobal Inc. is a benchmark organization for business. It is controlled by GS1, a private and non-profit standardization organization commissioned and governed by the users of the standards that it defines, rather than by solution providers. The aim of EPCglobal is to secure the dissemination of the EPC system throughout the world. This system promotes different standards, including an identification system. EPCglobal has also designed several generations of solutions, and it currently supports the development of the Class-1 Gen-2 (ISO certified since 2006). With this type of solution, it is theoretically possible to read 1000 RFID chips per second and at least 100 chips per second in hostile environments. These chips can be inscribed at a speed of 30 chips per second in optimal conditions, and 5 chips per second in a hostile environment. The frequency adopted is 860-960 MHz. EPCglobal has also implemented a network based on Internet technologies, as will be shown below.

A combination of technologies

  • 6 The consequences of this complexity in the organization of the market and production will be examin (...)

13The IoT is not a technology but rather a system of systems that allows for adjustments and a certain degree of flexibility. Interoperability between the integration systems of all the components induces a high level of complexity. The capacity to manage the interfaces will be a determining factor for the IoT to become a true network of networks. Supermarket distribution is a perfect example of both the potential of the IoT and the difficulty of implementing this type of system. Indeed, as a first step a solution must be installed at local level in all distribution warehouses and stores (first system) ; then it is necessary that the data collected be integrated into the company information system for it to be processed and analysed using different tools – ERP, for instance, (second system). In addition, in order to fully reap the benefits of this type of infrastructure, suppliers must be equipped with systems that are interoperable with those of the distributor (third system). Lastly, provision must be made for a technical system which can function in consumers’ homes, thus enabling the development of automation applications for use in the home, such as specific devices which detect food in refrigerators that is past its use-by date, and automatically send a new order to the distributor (fourth system)6.

The IoT as a network of networks

Ubiquitous computing : connecting the real to the virtual network

  • 7 For more information see: Preuverneers, D. and Y. Berbers, 2008, Internet of Things: A Context-Awar (...)

14Current research on the Internet is restricted to the documents (text, pictures, sound) that circulate thereon. However, the IoT will be able to extend the scope of this research using Discovery Services technology. Thus in the same way that a website has a unique address (the URL), it will be possible to fit each object with a unique electronic identification which will be readable and transferable via an Internet protocol network. Then the IoT is not only not limited to the on-line world, but also makes it potentially possible to provide each object with a virtual double, that is, a simplified copy of the characteristics of physical objects. These characteristics are multiple, and from a purely theoretical point of view, they could be almost infinite. In most cases however, the focus is on the definition of the nature of the object, its functionalities, the services it offers, its position in space, the history of its movements, and its age, etc. To achieve this link between the physical and virtual worlds, the technical devices must design models based on real contexts and then “virtualize” them. The notion of ubiquitous computing is sometimes used to refer to the solutions that make this transfer possible. The aim of ubiquitous solutions is to help detect and find answers to context changes. They must enable the collection, storage and manipulation of a given context to adapt a service to a specific situation and to a specific individual7. The generic expression ubiquitous computing still remains somewhat vague and refers in fact to most of the technologies presented at the beginning of this chapter – Semantic Web, RFID solutions, Service Oriented Architecture, etc.

The development of EPCglobal : an extension of the barcode system

15Although several platforms have been designed to enable the creation of this new form of network linking the physical and virtual worlds, only one solution – the EPCglobal network – appears sufficiently standardized and recognized to be used at international level. The architecture of this network was devised by the Auto-ID Center and then developed by EPCglobal. With this new Internet, data is disseminated throughout the network. In order to do this, it uses RFID chips that have a unique and unambiguous identification – an improved version of the barcode – known as Electronic Product Code (EPC). In addition, other data pertaining to the object is stored and accessible via the current Internet network. The EPCglobal network also uses to the Object Naming Service (ONS) and the EPCInformation Service (EPCIS). The ONS gives a reference to the information on the object saved via the EPC network, which enables the retracing of RFID objects through the network (its functioning principle is identical to the Domain Name System used for the Internet). The EPCIS offers an interface that gives access to memorized RFID data. An XML language is used to exchange RFID data between the EPCglobal network and external applications. The advantage of this EPCglobal network over other solutions is that it permits the use of cheap chips and offers an adaptable architecture. It is important to note that one of the solutions on offer (Discovery Service) for tracing RFID objects in the EPCglobal network requires that the movement of these objects be continually uploaded to one or several centralized updating servers.

16The capacity of the IoT to gradually widen the notion of a network of networks through the building of a network of sensors for animate and inanimate objects will also contribute to the structuring of new types of networks through the development of different types of structures – as new as those built by communities on the Internet – between objects and individuals. Therefore, to understand these evolutions, it is essential not to restrict analysis only to the purely technical features of this phenomenon, but also to take into account its social dimensions and the possible interactions between its users.

The IoT as a socio-technological system

17Local appropriation processes will have a crucial influence on the form and features of IoT uses. No doubt they will take different forms than those imagined today by researchers and companies. Some innovations have already overtaken most of our predictions. To give just one example, a Japanese company has developed a system, the Sekai camera, which enables the user to look up a restaurant menu or product features via an iPhone by simply pointing the phone towards the shop or the object. As soon as the telephone picks up the data, a short film or message appears on the iPhone. It is no longer necessary to launch a search to access information, all it takes is to point one’s phone towards a restaurant window8.

18The challenge lies in defining the principles and regulatory frameworks which will govern the uses of the IoT, or at least prevent the development of dangerous behaviours that could jeopardize individual liberties or democracies, while preserving the innovative potential of the IoT.

19We will return to this crucial question in the last chapter of this report.


1 Anonymous. 2008. Internet of Things in 2020. Roadmap for the Future, 1.1 ed.: 27: Infso D.4 Networked Enterprise & RFID; Infso G.2 Micro & Nanosystems in co-operation with the working group RFID of the EPOSS: 4.

2 To quote the expression used by S. Le Pallec,

3 IoT technologies are not completely new. The creation of this identification system – namely barcodes and RFID chips – dates back several decades.

4 In practice, the reader sends an electromagnetic wave. This wave creates a current in the tag antenna. The electric current produces energy in the tag, solely in the case of passive chips – active chips have their own source of energy as they are fitted with a battery. The data is transmitted to the reader through radio frequency. It is then downloaded to a server and is available and accessible via the information systems of an organization or directly through the Internet.

5 EPC stands for Electronic Product Code.

6 The consequences of this complexity in the organization of the market and production will be examined in Chapter 4.

7 For more information see: Preuverneers, D. and Y. Berbers, 2008, Internet of Things: A Context-Awareness Perspective, in L. Yan, Y. Zhang, L. T. Yang and H. Ning, eds, The Internet of Things. From RFID to the Next-Generation Pervasive Networked Systems: 287-307. New York: Auerbach Publications.


Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1 Major technological system necessary to the functioning of the IoT
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Titre Table 2 Open and closed RFID systems
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Titre Table 3 Types of RFID chips used
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© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2009

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