8 Comments

Summary:

The internet of things will be big… eventually. But first companies will have to navigate rapidly changing technology ecosystems and perhaps fight for access to the data to make their devices worth with others. What we need are open ecosystems akin to Android.

ivee alarm clock
photo: Ivee

Remember how I said the internet of things would be big at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas? It didn’t take a genius to figure that out, but I laid out four questions to ask about all the hyped objects at the show to help people understand the challenges and question facing the glut of connected gadgets that would be on display.

And one of them — especially important for startups — was about ecosystems and control points. Basically I wanted to know where the possible toll bridges are in each ecosystem. Maybe a company charges for access to its data or maybe it charges for access to its API. In a New York Times story on Friday about the ivee voice-controlled alarm clock, my concerns about how well devices and companies would play together were beautifully illustrated.

From the story:

But in the booth itself, things were a little more complicated. Jonathon Nostrant, the company’s founder, had connected an ivee Sleek to a Nest thermostat and a Belkin smart plug, which can turn lamps on and off. But neither of these companies have shared their application programming interfaces, or APIs, with ivee, so Mr. Nostrant had a programmer build a work-around. It was glitchy, working sometimes but not others.

And this is why I’m hoping to see some large market players enter the space with open APIs or access to data. The internet of things is going to need an Android to counter the many versions of Apple’s closed ecosystem. They may be slightly less perfect when it comes to the UI, but they will help open the field for innovation at all levels, so companies like ivee don’t have to build glitchy manual workarounds instead of focusing on building cool projects.

  1. Good luck. A lot of CE companies see standards as threats, because if implemented well, their hardware products become commodities, margins collapse, and they end up in a death spiral. As a result, you see a lot of partial compliance. It this short-sighted? Yes. But it is also reality. We already have integration standards like DLNA and UPnP, but adherence is spotty.

    The fact is that a lot of manufacturers want what Apple has – the ability to lock consumers into their ecosystems – so there will always be a tension here when trying to enforce integration standards.

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  2. Isn’t that what Android @Home is supposed to be?

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  3. In Scotland I miss toll bridges. The booths acted as a touch of real worldness. I suspect this is what is missing from Home Automation/Domotique/Apple@home. Once you have a couple of screens in the house and a dustpan and brush what else do you really need…. not a voice activated alarm clock – however cool. Indeed the main issue is security and that is a separate universe, as I see it, and the junction points are not cool they are worm holes where you take your pragmatic hat off and put your smaller wallet sized trilby on.

    There are only one or two organisations that straddle the home market’s requirements, in the UK – I am not sure that there are any in the USA having popped over at Thanksgiving to see how the other half live. France had a big push in this area 23 years back when they had a domestic consumer electronics champion. I cannot see what has fundamentally changed to get the man on top of the Clapham Omnibus to purchase any of the latest smaller computers (than then) so that he can ring home and do what …. the prime need 20 years ago was to set the video recorder going (up market alarm clock). Thus the point of control is not the focus rather the focus is what’s the point.

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  4. I appreciate Matt Eagar’s skepticism but this ‘pure capitalism’ model is exactly the type of thinking that will doom this. Much like the internet was built from research, for the good of all, and THEN companies made money, so it is for the internet of things. We need our internet of connectivity so we can start to build eco systems of devices.

    This isn’t obvious to be sure but we do need to get started and there are simple things we can do:
    1) Have a RESTful API for your smart device an publish the spec. Smart companies will start to collaborate around common APIs. Some companies will just build middle ware to made sense to the mess. Either way, it is a path that starts the process of access.

    2) Realize that there is a range of devices and they MUST be able to talk to each other. Smart devices need to move away from Zigbee style mess radio to standards like BlueTooth 4 and Wifi Direct, both of which have new chipsets that are nearly the same power draw as Zigbee. By moving to these standards, you can liberate these devices to bridge to our phones/tables/laptops. It’s an important step.

    3) Understand that there are families of IoT, tiny little devices that work as a swarm and bigger, beefier things like a Nest Controller. Once size does not fit all. The ‘Nest-like’ devices almost always need to have access to a smart phone for control and setup (see point 2 above)

    If we can start to build systems like this, EVERY device can be smart, in a very limited way. Even if it does nothing more that bridge you to a company website, adding functionality is a hugely valuable step and something every product can gain value from. This is much much much too big to leave to a single company and a proprietary standard.

    Scott Jenson
    http://www.jenson.org

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    1. You make some great points, Scott! But Bluetooth Low Energy cannot replace Zigbee because it cannot build home networks. It is a very cool technology limited by its design to very short range point-(multi)point systems. I think we’re probably stuck with Zigbee unless Android@home surfaces with a sane alternative…

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  5. Kim Spence-Jones Monday, January 14, 2013

    Spot on, Tracy!

    We’ve been working on just such a project for the infrastructure of smart and connected homes for the past eight years or so. The TAHI organisation (Now renanmed SH&BA — http://www.shaba.eu/) has been creating standards for it too. I have been building support for an open source project (www.OpenDCU.org) making an open reference design for a “Digital Consumer Unit” to form the core of the connected home. We are finding more and more support for this project, typically from companies who want to get invovlved in the IoT as suppliers of devices, but are holding off until the strategic direction for the core infrastructure is clearer.

    To address Matt’s comment, yes, there will always be Apple-like companies, but the IoT is bigger than even the biggest company. Just as computer communication was a niche until the Internet standard emerged, proprietary IoT solutions will also be niche until there’s a clear standard — Scott summarises this very clearly in his post. So don’t let those who say it can’t be doneinterrupt those of us who are doing it. :-)

    We’re hoping to find some serious government funding for our work; to make that happen we need as much support from industry and other stakeholders as possible. Please send me an email (kim@OpenDCU.org) if your company would like its logo added to our “Sponsors and Supporters” page. No charge for adding your logo, but financial support is also welcome, of course.

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  6. Dear Stacey,

    You might want to check out the APDuino Project, online to public @ http://apduino.com since 2012 October, allowing the creation of custom sensor monitoring and automation systems without programming, enabled instantly for IoT: our online service connects to open data loggers and provides HTTP API to interact with devices.

    We enable tinkerers to focus primarily on hardware by providing a ready-to-flash software configurable via our cloud-based interface.

    We received People’s Choice in Postscapes’ 2012 IoT Awards in DIY category. http://postscapes.com/awards/category/diy-project

    Anyone interested, feel free to check out our “live technology preview” at http://apduino.com

    If interested, please do not hesitate to contact me.
    Best Regards,
    George Schreiber
    Project Founder

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  7. Props, Stacey: the phenomenon you describe was discouraging at CES this year. Everyone smells the opportunity to gain critical momentum toward a defacto standard with their own flavor of IoT walled garden. Proprietary devices, proprietary networks, proprietary gateways hardwired to proprietary infrastructures with steep monthly fees. The prices are crazy, too: how does a tiny peep from a simple command-and-control object cost between five and fifteen cents to transact? Think what it would cost to watch a youtube video if other data providers charged at that rate. By the end of 2013 I’m going to have six or eight different hubs connected to my DSL gateway. We really need standards-based open platforms, and we need pressure (from where?) for systems designers to support open standards. I should only need to buy ONE Zigbee gateway, and all my devices should be able to communicate in ways that I specify. I think we really need a lot of competition to set this trajectory straight, and at least one service to enter the fray with an open platform. I’d like to see the Firefox of IoT services, where anyone can make a trigger or an action, and any device from any vendor can use the service.

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