Interoperability for a healthy ecosystem

The Internet of Things has a grand vision: a future where everything is connected. From city buses and power grids to home appliances and personal devices, all of our things will be able talk to each other. It's one of those disruptive technologies that promises applications we can't even think of yet.

Unfortunately, there's a problem: the devices aren't talking.

Despite the incredible rate at which IoT technology is being developed and adopted, there has yet to come a solid set of industry-wide standards. Devices made by different manufacturers often don't play well with each other, making compatibility a mess – and this problem is crippling the development of the Internet of Things. The grand vision of IoT – millions of devices all interconnected and interacting in complex ways – is hardly possible when you can't connect the devices to each other.

You would think that a set of standards would have been one of the first things established for the IoT, considering the importance of the issue. Unfortunately, there's a lot of challenges involved with establishing an IoT standard, ranging from technical problems, to corporate politics, to consumer experience issues. In this article, we're going to go over some of the challenges involved in establishing an IoT-wide set of standards, and how those challenges might be eventually overcome.


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A Theory of Everything

One of the greatest difficulties in establishing an IoT standard is the incredible variety of potential IoT devices. It's fairly straightforward to develop standards for narrow areas of technology, but broad technologies are much more difficult. By definition, an industry-wide IoT standard would have to meet all the typical communication needs of “things”.

“Things” is a pretty broad category. Developing a standard that works for everything from electrical grids and street lights to shower heads and coffee machines is a daunting task. For the standard to work, it has to be incredibly flexible.

Thankfully, this isn't entirely uncharted territory. Standards have been developed for very broad technologies in the past – standards such as HTTP for the internet, or USB for data transfer. IoT is a little more broad, as it includes both physical and data components, but we're at least not in entirely uncharted territory. We know a few of the design principles necessary for making standards that apply to wide varieties of devices and data types.




The Needs of Tomorrow

The first technical consideration is extensibility. For a standard to last, it doesn't just have to apply to current technology – it has to apply to future technology as well. It is important that IoT standards allow devices to communicate information in a wide variety of formats – from sensor data to streaming music and video. Thankfully, this is actually fairly simple, since it's a problem that the internet solved a long time ago. Simply put, a good standard establishes formats for common types of data – text, images, video, etc. - while also allowing raw data to be sent over simple protocols like UDP or TCP.

This gives you the best of both worlds – standardization for common stuff, and total flexibility if your product has special needs. As time goes on and new products are developed, data format standards can be expanded to encompass the developing needs of the market – much like how HTML5 added streaming video in web browsers once it became popular.

In the context of the IoT, these common data types to standardize might be things like temperatures, light levels, audio, video, power, and positional data. As the ecosystem of devices expands, devices that provide new functionality could send and receive the necessary additional data over general data channels, which could be handled in software. If those new data types become common enough to warrant standardizing, they can be implemented in most cases with a simple software update.



Defending Data

Security and data privacy are another concern, and one that's a particularly hot topic right now. Up to this point, the IoT has done a terrible job at this – hackers have held IoT devices for ransom, used them in massive botnets to send spam emails, and even used them to spy on device owners. It's not just hackers either – companies have fallen under criticism and even faced lawsuits over their use of customer data. Just this month, Standard Innovation settled a suit over customer data privacy - to the tune of a hefty $3.75 million dollars.

This has a very real affect on adoption rates – people are hesitant to adopt technology that could be used against them, especially when it comes to products central to their everyday life.

Good security requires a total approach, and there's no one quick fix. As any security professional will tell you, even the strongest computer security systems can become useless if a user chooses a bad password, and even solid software suffers from the occasional exploit. Nonetheless, certain precautions can be taken to minimize risks, even on the protocol level.

Mandatory strong end-to-end encryption between all devices would be a simple way to prevent the vast majority of common attacks used today. That and a set of cryptographic authentication standards to prevent unauthorized third-party access to data, while still allowing data sharing with approved cloud services, would go a long way in ensuring that users data is safe, secure, and private.


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On The Air

Once a standard for communication format is achieved, there's also the matter of how to send that data. WiFi, Bluetooth, and GSM are the most commonly used standards today, but they all have serious tradeoffs in terms of range, power consumption, and bandwidth. None of the current standards are a one-size-fits-all solution to wireless communication in the IoT, but developments are being made on this front. In particular, IEEE's proposed 802.11ah standard could deliver the high data speed typical of WiFi at a lower power consumption much better fit for IoT applications.

But for the foreseeable near future, the assortment of wireless protocols is unavoidable, since there exists no single wireless protocol that serves all the general needs of the IoT industry at large. Until an ideal wireless standard is created and adopted by hardware manufacturers, the best approach would simply be to standardize methods for sending standard-format IoT data over each different wireless protocol, for all common wireless protocols.




Strategic Simplicity

Finally, all this has to be lightweight and easily adaptable to a wide range of platforms. Consumer IoT devices often use limited ARM microcontrollers, often with very small amounts of memory and low clock speeds. While this is a bit of a limitation, it would be absurdly wasteful to put a quad-core processor and 4 gigabytes of RAM in your toaster. There's no good reason why a curling iron needs to run a full Apache server.

Keeping the base protocols simple and lightweight inherently makes them easier to adapt to a wider range of hardware, and also carries benefits in terms of speed and bandwidth usage when it comes to more powerful devices. So, in this case, less is more.



Walled Gardens and Open Fields

Unfortunately, technical hurdles are only half the battle. The other half is getting the industry to actually agree on and adopt these standards once they're made. Whether it's Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD, USB vs FireWire, or VHS vs Betamax, recent history provides many examples of companies fighting to the death (or, more accurately, bankruptcy) over competing technology standards.

It's not hard to see why, either – having control over the winning standard is a great position for a company to be in. While the 'walled garden' approach often provokes criticism from consumers, it also allows a company to retain greater control over products in its ecosystem. Consumers are starting to warm up to this approach as well – in particular, Apple has gotten a great reputation for consistent quality by retaining control over hardware and software standards on their mobile devices. Many consumers have made it clear that they're willing to pay premium prices for products that “just work” without any hassle or fuss.

Some developers prefer the walled garden approach as well – having a strict set of standards means that you only have to develop your software for a handful of devices, and that greatly simplifies deployment, QA testing, and product support after launch.

On the other hand, other companies have done well using the opposite strategy – making their platforms more open. Open standards encourage development by third-party companies, resulting in more choices for consumers and easier access for developers. Google's ecosystem of devices and software offerings are a great example of this opposing strategy. While consumers might bemoan the abundance of sub-par apps and devices in the Android market, it's clear that most customers prefer the platform for its flexibility, low cost, and abundance of software. The most recent numbers available at the time of this article show Android leading by a market share of 52.8% to iOS's 43.6% in the US, and a whopping 86.2% to 12.9% worldwide.

History has also shown that, over time, it's usually the open standards that gain mass-market adoption. This is almost certainly going to be the case with IoT technology, as it's far too broad for any one company to maintain dominance over the entire IoT ecosystem. A walled garden can work when you're only managing a narrow subsection of devices – simple home automation, for example – but when that ecosystem expands to include, well, everything, that becomes an impossible task.



Hope for the Future


We're still a long way out from establishing a clear IoT standard, but the industry is moving towards solutions. As the Internet of Things grows, interoperability becomes more and more critical to the function of the ecosystem as a whole. Standardization might not happen this year, or the next, but it's a challenge that the industry will surely overcome. From industry giants like Qualcomm and Intel, to respected institutes like IEEE and W3C, everyone is focused on finding solutions to the challenges of interoperability. The industry knows that good standards are vital for the Internet of Things to reach its full potential, and are focused on finding the right solutions that will allow the ecosystem to flourish.


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