Sensor, Device, or Product? A Quick Look at IoT Terminology

When I got into marketing several years ago, I was new to the tech world. And I was completely out of my element with the Internet of Things. Honestly, I had no idea what it was. I knew we did something with connected water pumps, but that’s about it. It actually took a few weeks for me to realize that Internet of Things was the same as IoT (I didn’t disclose that to any of my coworkers at the time). Additionally, there was M2M (machine-to-machine), which has largely become synonymous with IoT, and others like SaaS, PaaS, IIoT, and several dozen other acronyms.

Terms in the tech world are confusing!

Today, as the Internet of Things trend becomes more common, we’re starting to see some consistency in terminology and messaging. But there’s still some confusion between some important terms, for example, device vs. product.

When we were building Foundry, our Connected Product Management (CPM) platform, we wrestled with a proper description. Of course there are multiple ways to describe any product or service, but like any sensible company, we wanted to be as communicative as possible. One way we refer to Foundry is a “CRM for connected devices.” Another: “What Salesforce is to CRM, Foundry is to IoT.” But instead of managing customers, users are managing connected “things”.

But what’s the difference between a device and a product? And if we want to go deeper, what’s the meaning of sensor, another common term? All of these terms are important. Sometimes they’re synonymous, sometimes they’re not, but they all have their place in the IoT messaging landscape.

Sensor

In most cases, a sensor is the most basic of components and it measures something in the real world: light, water pressure, temperature, etc. Sensors are not stand-alone components because they need other components to do something with the information it’s reading. A sensor can’t report or monitor, it can only measure.

Device

Devices are comprised of several components–including sensors–to be able to report an activity, like the flow of water through a pipe. It’s a generic term but it’s something built for a specific purpose.  A device also has a computational component, or a brain. It needs to decide how often to look at water flow and how to interpret what the sensor is reading. It also decides what to do with this information: Where is the data sent, how often, when? This computation component is made up of both a processor/microcontroller as well as the software that’s running on it. However, there can be ‘dumb’ devices, sending every data point to the cloud, letting the cloud software make decisions. A device also has a connectivity component like a wireless radio or a hardwired connection along with the hardware to use them. Devices can be small, but are brilliantly complex.

Actuators

Instead of monitoring values (i.e. water flow) or environmental conditions (i.e. temperature), devices can also include actuators: Components that cause changes to occur. If a sensor reads the temperature to be X, an actuator can cause a motor to turn on. If a sensor reads X gallons of water flowing through a pipe, an actuator can shut a valve.

Connected Products

A connected product is usually the largest physical component of an IoT solution. A connected product is the complete physical package that a user is monitoring: washing machines, generators, manufacturing equipment, laser welding machines, delivery trucks, consumer products. Connected products could include, and usually do, multiple sensors, actuators, and devices. Many of our customers are looking to build connectivity into their products. Others, however, cannot or should not. For example, it doesn’t make sense for a plumbing company to buy a brand new fleet of trucks with GPS capabilities. Instead, they can attach devices (OBDII devices) to their existing trucks to make them connected and trackable.  Whether connectivity is built into the product or a device is retroactively attached to a product, both count as “connected products.”

“Object” in ThingLogix Foundry

Some of our customers have devices they’re tracking, others have connected products. When building Foundry we decided to use the term object within the application. An object is the most basic thing a company is tracking, representing either a device or a product. An object could be a device living within a product (flow meter in a washing machine), a device tacked onto a product (OBD2 device plugged into a delivery truck), a connected product (a wearable watch), and anywhere in between.

An Object becomes a much more complex concept when you consider all of the systems and stakeholders it serves: Marketing, R&D, Sales, Product Management, IT. They all have their idea of how that “thing” is important and how it needs to be managed. In Foundry, the fundamental object can be used to describe a physical thing, build applications, be dependent on outside systems and workflows, feed analytic models, and have relationships to other objects.

The tech world is full of confusing terminology, and because IoT is a conceptual evolution of machines talking people and other machines, it is no different. Maybe worse! As the technology progresses the nuances will continue to grow but it’s a good idea to get ahead of the language sooner than later. Before you know it, you’re company will be wrapped up with trying to understand how things with some sensors and connectivity become a connected product, and then how it’s important to your business and customers.

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