Internet of Things: Are we nearly there yet?

The web's future: Devices coming online
The web's future: Devices coming online   

If seems as though we've been talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) for ages. And that's because we have – the term has been around for 15 years.

But, despite it being a buzzword at this year's Web Summit tech conference in Dublin, it's far from obvious that the world of controlling household objects and cars from your smartphone is any closer.

Accenture estimates that there will be 50 billion digital devices by 2020, with chief technology officer Paul Daugherty saying it will "dwarf the mobile industry". But not yet.

"It has certainly not arrived in the same way that mobile ubiquity has arrived," Josh Elman, partner at Silicon Valley venture firm Greylock, told CNBC in Dublin. "But it's absolutely going to be at some point in the future… We're almost there."

Robyn Beck | AFP| Getty Images

Elman has already made a foray into the connected world. Two years ago at Web Summit, he met the founder of SmartThings, an app which lets the user control things like lights and locks from their smartphone. Greylock led the company's Series A funding round a year ago, and in August it was bought by Samsung for a reported $200 million.

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It's not just venture capitalists that are interested in the sector – big business is also getting in on the act. Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco Systems, told CNBC she was particularly interested about the Internet of Things. She described as the "next phase in the internet evolution" and put the estimated value of this market at $19 trillion.

Dumb products

In an effort to speed up adoption, start-up Spark has created a set of chips that make it easy for developers to connect "dumb products"–your average coffee machine or car–to the internet over wifi.

Currently, 20,000 engineers are making products using the company's platform. Projects to date include a wifi-connected sprinkler system and a solar-powered security camera dubbed "the infinity camera" because - in theory - it never stops taking photos.

A solar-powered camera using Spark
Spark
A solar-powered camera using Spark

But even Spark's CEO and founder Zach Supalla said: "Despite the fact that this is what we do, I actually don't think we're yet at the Internet of Things."

Supalla explained that the IoT is currently where computing was in the late 1970s/early 1980s, according to Supalla, when Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were selling the Apple-I.

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"People probably knew that the PC was the next big thing. But they hadn't figured them out yet," he told CNBC in Dublin. "There were a couple of key insights that happened around then – and we're at the start of that right now."

Future of Nest at Google
Future of Nest at Google   

Is Uber an IoT company?

But some people, including Jeff Lawson, founder and CEO of cloud communications company Twilio, believe we are already using the Internet of Things – just not necessarily in areas you'd expect it to be.

"The internet of things is just the natural progression of both the internet and things," he said, highlighting that Uber is probably an IoT company.

"It's using sensors out in the wild, in your phone, in a drivers' phone. And an algorithm running in the cloud to make a better customer experience," he said. "And ultimately those are the Internet of Things cases that are going to win."

Twilio has worked with a number of IoT companies including SmartThing and a carmaker that was communicating with their vehicles via text messages.

A prominent IoT company is Nest, which builds smart thermostats and fire alarms. It was bought by Google this year for around $3.2 billion.

"Nest, SmartThings, this is just the beginning," Greylock's Elman said. "With the Internet of Things, it's going to be drip, drip, drip… flood."

- By CNBC's Katrina Bishop in Dublin