Debating the Telephone's Role in Internet of Things

At a recent meeting involving a group of analysts, consultants, and members of the media, a mini-debate broke out when Jean Turgeon, vice president and chief technologist for software defined architecture at Avaya, contended that digital telephones and even analog telephones could be considered Internet of Things devices. The more I thought about this, the more I could see his point. As the debate wore on, I became convinced.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is defined in Gartner's IT Glossary as: "the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment." Said another way, in a recent No Jitter post, UC analyst Dave Michels wrote that IoT "refers to a world of smart, connected objects." In a video on Forbes, futurist Jacob Morgan introduced the caveat that IoT devices "collect and transmit data via the Internet." Morgan added, "This includes everything from cellphones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices and almost anything else you can think of."

Distilling these three points of view into as few words as possible, we arrive at an IoT device definition of a physical object that is capable of communicating, sensing, and interacting with its internal state and/or the external environment, with information transmitted to and from the object via the internet. By internet (lowercase "i"), I'll assume that we are referring to the colloquial usage of the term. That is, some type of packet-switched modality, such as a corporate local or wide area network, which may not necessarily be employing the Internet protocol.

If we accept Morgan's view that a cell phone can be an IoT device, it's not that far of a leap to say that an analog phone is as well. After all, a cell phone might communicate via a packet-switched technology, but in North America, especially today, it may likely not. The same is true of a wearable device, which is often tethered to a smart phone that, at any point in time, may or may not be communicating via packet switching.

Another characteristic of an IoT device, implied by the definition, is the existence of metadata, or data about the device or its state. An example of metadata is geolocation data, or the physical location information that is provided from a smart phone or analog telephone from which a 9-1-1 call has been placed. When that metadata is transmitted over a packet-switched network to be displayed as information, on say, a dispatch console in a public safety answering point, doesn't that meet our definition?

As these thoughts began to crystalize in my head during the mini-debate, I argued that the digital phone qualifies as an IoT device due to the amount of metadata available. That is to say that the presence of metadata in digital phones proves my point -- a digital phone and associated metadata can be leveraged to provide actionable insight to enterprise organizations. A digital phone is constantly being polled and metadata about its "internal states" communicated.

Then, there is the point to consider that a digital phone and even an analog endpoint can be made to interact with its external environment. An example might be the ability for a notification application to instruct the enterprise communications systems to use the endpoint as an alerting device during an emergency.

I may have I stretched credulity a little here, but I don't think so. What do you think? Leave a comment below and join in on the debate.

Between these use cases and the strict definition of an IoT device, there is a spectrum of arguments about what is and what isn't IoT. The case for a digital telephone is certainly stronger than that for an analog phone, but in my mind, both hold up.

More clarity will surely be found at Enterprise Connect, coming March 27-30 in Orlando, Fla. The event's annual Innovation Showcase will be focused on IoT this year, led by Dave Michels. As Michels wrote in the article referenced above, "The theme for 2017 is the Internet of Things (IoT), and the goal is to highlight solutions with horizontal enterprise applicability that can potentially impact enterprise communications and/or collaboration."

Michels will also be co-moderating a general session with Michelle Burbick about the intersection of IoT and UC. I expect more clarity about IoT to emerge throughout the event, both in these sessions and in conversations with peers.

Learn more about mobility trends and technologies at Enterprise Connect 2017, March 27 to 30, in Orlando, Fla. View the Mobility track, and register now using the code NOJITTER to receive $300 off an Entire Event pass or a free Expo Plus pass.

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