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Challenges and opportunities abound in the fragmented IoT

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said this week that the next version of Windows has been designed for the Internet of Things, as Computerworld reported. Windows 10, which was developed as a single platform for PCs, tablets and handsets, is also being positioned as an operating system that can also provide security and management for devices, applications and analytics.

Of course, Windows already has plenty of competition in these early days of the IoT. Android and iOS have worldwide penetration and thriving developer ecosystems, but their sophistication and power likely make them ill-suited for more mundane M2M tasks. Samsung hopes to gain traction with its Galaxy Gear smartwatch that runs Tizen, the Linux-based OS that has its roots in the MeeGo platform that Nokia once backed. Meanwhile, a small army of more lightweight operating systems are vying for traction: Spark OS is designed to bring connectivity to traditionally unconnected hardware such as lights and door locks. Google opened Nest Lab’s platform to outside developers a few months ago in an effort to enable systems in which Nest’s thermostat would serve as a control and information hub in smart homes. And Contiki – which requires only a few kilobytes – has been used for years in street lighting systems, radiation monitoring devices and other low-power scenarios.

Predictably, the race to create standards for the IoT is nearly as fragmented as the market for operating systems. Network World reported in July that at least four major consortia are working to create various competing standards for the IoT, and other groups may soon add to the confusion. A quick summary:

  • AllJoyn, an open source protocol launched by Qualcomm in 2011, was developed as a framework to enable manufacturers and developers to create devices and apps that are interoperable on Wi-Fi networks. A smartphone could communicate with connected appliances via their home Wi-Fi, for instance (as this video illustrates), allowing users to control a range of devices from different manufacturers and on different networks. In addition to Qualcomm, backers include heavyweights such as Cisco, HTC, LG and Microsoft.
  • The Industrial Internet Consortium was announced earlier this year by AT&T, Cisco, GE, IBM and Intel, and has since added Microsoft. It hopes to develop standards for industrial uses of connected devices, but has yet to publish any specifications.
  • The Open Interconnect Consortium launched in June and promises to deliver “a specification, an open source implementation and a certification program” to ensure the interoperability of wirelessly connected devices. Atmel, Broadcom, Dell, Intel, Samsung and Wind River are founding members.
  • Most recently, Google’s Nest Labs introduced a group of partners backing Thread, a wireless networking developed specifically for smart home devices. Proponents claim Thread is superior to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other established technologies because of its security and low-power features. In addition to Nest, The Thread Group includes ARM, Samsung, Freescale and several smaller companies.

The growing number of competing alliances and technologies has drawn comparisons to 1980s-era battle between Betamax and VHS, in which a single standard eventually won out. But I’m not convinced that’s entirely accurate – the fight over a video format was for a single, consumer-targeted purpose, while the IoT already includes countless devices in a wide variety of use cases.

That’s why ARM’s new operating system is so compelling. Called mbed OS and announced last week, it was developed to enable devices running lightweight, low-power software to communicate with more powerful gadgets on more powerful operating systems such as Android and iOS. And mbed OS – which is free and will be available to ARM’s partners later this quarter – is designed to work with a variety of different devices and protocols.

It’s highly unlikely that a single OS — or even two or three — will come to dominate the entire IoT, which already encompasses a huge range of devices, technologies and use cases. And mbed OS won’t be embraced some manufacturers that already have a software strategy for their IoT products. But some of the biggest opportunities in the era of ubiquitous connectivity will exist for companies that can help devices in a very fragmented world talk to each other.