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IoT: Talking the Talk

Jamie Gooch If your alarm clock tells your coffee maker to start brewing 15 minutes before you get up, but your coffee maker doesn’t speak alarm clock, you’ll have to wait to get your caffeine fix. That’s a problem for the future Internet of Things (IoT), in which billions of devices are expected to communicate with one another.

A lack of communications standards has repercussions beyond you having to manually start your coffee maker, however. The IoT may someday affect traffic patterns, health care options, car insurance rates, manufacturing schedules and even how farmers harvest their crops. It’s been more aptly called the “Internet of Everything,” but what language should “everything” speak? There is already a platform war brewing that could make VHS vs. Betamax (or Blu-ray vs. HD DVD for you younger readers) look like a minor dust-up.

The Battle Begins at Home

Apple’s recently announced HomeKit framework would allow iOS apps to control connected devices in the home by talking to them via Siri voice commands. The devices would need to be MFi-certified, as in made for the iPhone, iPad or iPod. As the biggest technology company in the world, Apple’s platform is something design engineers may need to take into account when developing connected hardware. While HomeKit could bring some clout to bear in organizing the array of proprietary connected home products on the market, it’s unclear whether it would work with products that don’t connect via Wi-Fi because of power constraints.

Enter Nest Labs, makers of connected thermostats and smoke detectors (thus far). Although it was recently acquired by Google, Nest has joined with six other companies to form the Thread Group to develop Thread, a new IP-based wireless IPv6 networking protocol that puts a focus on longer battery life. According to the group’s press release: “Thread is not an application protocol or a connectivity platform for many types of disparate networks. Thread is an IPv6 networking protocol built on open standards, designed for low-power 802.15.4 mesh networks. Existing popular application protocols and IoT platforms can run over Thread networks.”

Apple’s walled ecosystem vs. Google’s more open approach may sound familiar, especially to software developers who have to make multiple versions of their apps so that they’ll run on both platforms. With the IoT, where hardware and software converge into connected devices, design engineers will likely face a similar increase in product complexity.

Google and Apple aren’t the only tech giants interested in ensuring your fridge can tell your car to pick up more milk when you’re driving past the grocery store. Atmel, Broadcom, Dell, Intel, Samsung and Wind River have established the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC), which according to a recent announcement is “focused on defining a common communications framework based on industry standard technologies to wirelessly connect and intelligently manage the flow of information among personal computing and emerging IoT devices, regardless of form factor, operating system or service provider.” The OIC is initially targeting smart home and office solutions, and expects to follow with standards in automotive, health care and industrial markets.

Will this be the one standard design engineers can use to ensure their products connect with everyone else’s? Not so fast.

Late last year, Qualcomm announced the formation of the AllSeen Alliance, a cross-industry consortium intended to advance the IoT. Microsoft, LG, Panasonic and Cisco are among its 50+ members. The Alliance’s framework is based on expanding Qualcomm’s AllJoyn open source project.

A War Worth Fighting

Research firm Gartner expects the IoT to add $1.9 trillion to the global economy, with 26 billion connected devices by 2020. Another research firm, IDC, predicts the IoT will grow by more than $5 trillion over the next six years to reach $7.1 trillion in 2020. Standardization efforts, even if fragmented among a handful of large players, can help make those forecasts come true.

With that kind of growth, it’s too much to ask for one standard to design toward. That makes the interdisciplinary and inter-departmental collaboration efforts we focus on beginning on page 14 all the more critical to design engineers confronted with the IoT.

In a press release announcing the OIC, Glen Robson, VP and CTO for Client Solutions at Dell, noted that “consumers and businesses alike will need a strong base upon which to build the vast array of solutions enabled by a global Internet of Things.” In the short term, at least, there will be multiple bases upon which to build.

Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Jamie J. Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the editorial director of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.