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Internet of Things must learn interoperability lessons from history

“You only have to look at the history of wireless standards to realise the convoluted path that Wi-Fi had to take to get to where it is today,” says UK entrepreneur Will Franks. You may not have heard of him but he has history. In 2013 he sold a company he co-founded called Ubiquisys to Cisco for $310m. Ubiquisys developed small cell (or femtocell) devices for mobile operators and consumers that plugged into broadband connections to improve 3G coverage in the home and office. You can only imagine the interoperability hurdles it had to jump to get that to market, so it’s no surprise that in the Internet of Things (IoT), Franks is seeing history repeat itself.

“IoT is a whole myriad of different ways of connecting things,” he says. “It could be fixed, Wi-Fi, NFC, cellular, ultra-narrow band or even ZigBee - so many but they have different uses. You have to mix and match what is best to make connections work.”

In the early days of Ubiquisys Franks encountered similar issues. There were, he says, a number of wireless proprietary technologies that wouldn’t talk to each other, making it impossible to roam from town to town let alone country to country. The solution was to get all the technologies into the same room and try and thrash out an interoperability plan. As a result, Franks and Ubiquisys were instrumental in setting up the Small Cell Forum.

This collaborative forum approach worked for Ubiquisys. It led to APIs for proprietary technologies and much improved interoperability. It’s a lesson that has clearly stuck in Franks’ mind as in March he announced he is to be the inaugural chairman of the newly created Wireless IoT Forum. (Wireless sector veteran William Webb is CEO.)

“Successful wireless technologies have always been founded on interoperability, open standards, and a focus on the demands of end-users,” said Franks in a Wireless IOT Forum statement. “The Forum is committed to securing these conditions and working with all major stakeholders to ensure successful and timely deployment of the Internet of Things worldwide. We are delighted to have helped bring together key industry players with the common goal of driving standardisation and interoperability. These players have the vision to recognise the need to collaborate to create robust technology platforms while competing to create dynamic markets.”

 

A demand for ecosystems

Franks is reluctant to talk about who these “players” are for the moment but admits there are a number of large multinational companies, fixed and wireless network operators, infrastructure providers, app developers in utilities, government and specialist SMEs, semiconductor vendors, radio technology providers, module developers, systems integrators and end-users. The Forum is set to announce founding members at the M2M World Congress in London on 28 April.

“It’s about creating an inclusive, open innovation model,” he says. “Better to have stronger ecosystems of competitors who work together for a common goal than for everyone to be sitting in their silos trying to win their own particular standards battles.”

Very true. The technology industry has history here. It’s natural for many businesses to plough their own particular standards furrows but only for so long. At some point you have to lift your head and open a few doors.

“Yes, the parallel would be in the early days of mobile phones. There were lots of networks but they didn’t talk to each other. Some companies forge ahead and try and land-grab hoping they will become a standard but it rarely works like that. Apple is perhaps one exception.”

Franks says the Wireless IoT Forum will help companies avoid heading into technology cul-de-sacs. 

“Within 18 months we are hoping to have enough of the stragglers around the world together to come in and work on what we will actually use the technology for,” he says.

So what’s the ultimate goal for IoT here?

“What we’d like is a small device with infinite bandwidth with its own low-power battery that we can embed into devices and that ideally costs nothing,” he says smiling.

Speaking while recording a video for the School of Business and Entrepreneurship (SBE) in the south west English city of Bath, Franks’ eyes light up with the potential for IoT and has a consumer-oriented start-up up his sleeve.

“The impact IoT can have is absolutely huge. Where mobile phones can connect people, IoT can connect everything from health systems equipment through to factories and homes. They are all different types of ecosystems and all very fragmented but it can touch everything.”

Franks clearly likes a challenge. When he’s not riding around in his Maserati and trying out extreme sports, he’s to be found sitting in boardrooms, mentoring start-ups, speaking to sixth formers, working with charities and helping out the SetSquared Partnership of Universities.

He’s come a long way since his early days of working at the now defunct British firm Racal Electronics. If he manages to crack wireless interoperability for IoT and launch a start-up off the back of it, he’ll go a lot further too and it would be hard to bet against him making history again.

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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