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By the end of this decade, internet-connected devices will outnumber humans by more than three to one, analysts predict, as the Internet of Things gains considerable momentum.
Data published by researchers at Gartner predicts there will be 25 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020, outnumbering the global population, which the UN estimates to be 7.7 billion by that year, by more than three to one.
A phrase used to cover all internet-connected devices and not just consumer goods like smartphone, tablets and wearables, the Internet of Things (IoT) includes everything from devices used to track shipping and manufacturing logistics, to smart utility meters and medical devices.
Gartner expects consumer applications - such as wearable gadgets like fitness trackers and smartwatches - to drive the number of connected things, while enterprise use "will account for most of the revenue." The research company expects 2.9 billion connected devices to be in use in the consumer sector next year, with the automotive sector showing the highest annual growth rate of 96% for 2015. Gartner expects to see over 13 billion IoT devices in the consumer sector by 2020.
In industry, Gartner expects manufacturing, utilities and transportation to be the top three users of the IoT next year, with 736 million connected devices between them; by 2020 the company expects smart meters to take utilities to the top spot, followed by manufacturing and government.
Major growth in the IoT will come from connecting previously passive objects such as street lights and rubbish bins, a process known as giving them "a digital voice" with which they deliver information streams reflecting their status and that of their surrounding environment.
Gartner predicts: "It is likely that within the next few years, some level of built-in intelligence and connectivity will be regarded as standard, and this will rapidly filter down to mainstream products and service."
But so many data streams must be carefully managed and protected to be useful. Steve Prentice, vice president and Gartner Fellow, warns: "Organisations must straddle the tension of all the information available from smart things by balancing their desire to collect and analyse it with the risk of its loss or misuse."