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Experts say Internet of Things is edging into maturity

Incisor, a media group run by editor Vince Holton, recently held a roundtable in Las Vegas as the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) brought some of the world’s leading lights in the Internet of Things together. IDG Connect networked these experts together around a boardroom, with additional expertise plugged in from remote locations.

The following excerpts are taken from a video discussion which can be viewed here. Some light edits have been made for sense and flow. (Full disclosure: IDG Connect is a media partner of Incisor.)

 

Panel:

VH = Vince Holton, Editor, Incisor (Meeting Host)

BM = Bill Morelli, Senior Director at researcher IHS (Co Host)

PD = Philip DesAutels, Senior Director, Allseen Alliance

GM = Graham Martin, Chairman, EnOcean Alliance

DB = David Bean, CEO of protocol analysis tools maker, Frontline Test Equipment

RA = Robert Aiello, New Business Innovation, CTO Office, Itron

JCL = Jens Christian Lindof, VP, RTX

MC = Mick Conley, Development Manager for Industry Programmes, UL

 

VH: This year CES feels like the dawn of a new era. There are new organizations, new stands, new technologies with fewer entrenched players and far more new players. One of the big areas of discussion in the last year has been interoperability - particularly in the smart home. How much of an issue do you think this will be in future? Are the vendors going to stick to the silo [proprietary] approach or will they follow the guidelines of the standards organizations?

MC: I think standards are going to be embraced, big time. You have Allseen, OIC, Thread and Zigbee all coming out with very similar technologies. So I think we’re going to see a lot of co-operation even among the competitive standards. We’re finding the product manufacturers are demanding interoperability. It used to be about compliance, now they’re demanding interoperability.

 

VH: There does seem to be a groundswell change. Instead of competing with each other there’s a new era of co-operation. Everyone’s announcing partnerships.

 

PD: As I walked through CES I noticed there seems to be three stages of evolution. First, there’s the companies that have discovered connected products. They tend to be islands. They’ve built an app and a product. Then there are the companies that have discovered a thing called ‘the cloud’ and have decided to be part of an archipelago of islands. They think if they include an API (application programming interface) users might connect their cloud to other clouds. The third group has a connected product that works with other people’s products and brings some real value. I’m amazed how many of the first two groups there still are at CES.

The big players are in the third group and they’re willing to create products, that other people can do things with, that they [the original manufacturers] don’t understand. That’s the scary part: they’ve made products and they don’t know what their partners will do with them, but they are prepared to open them up in order to create those possibilities.

DB: Usability is increasingly becoming a hot topic and that’s dependent on the openness and co-operation between the different manufacturers. That means revising the way they develop and test things, in order to meet the demand for usability, especially in the connected car space. 

RA: We’re in the utilities business, which is less prone to be open than the consumer sector, because of the levels of security levels involved, but we still see a degree of interoperability being shown at component level. The radios and networks, for example, need to be interoperable, but you won’t see end to end openness.

PD: That shows the diversity of the IoT. Referring to it as a uniform entity is a bit like thinking there’s this one uniform thing called ‘the web’. Even in the smart car sector, there are going to be open and closed areas. Infotainment and infrastructure are two sides of the connected car that live in completely different standards worlds. But the edges of those different layers within the IoT will have connections. The infrastructure of the utilities will remain a closed world. But the smart consumer appliances that may tap into the information of the grid in order to decide whether it’s a good time to buy electricity, will have interfaces into those different systems.

JCL: Absolutely. I’m from a manufacturer and there are still going to be a lot of silos when it comes to hardware because there will be different needs. But IPV6 will create interoperability at some level, as it makes it possible for every component to have its own IP address.

PD: Even where there isn’t an IP or an open system, we can still build a standardized bridge [between different systems] that we can build between us.

GM: The consumer doesn’t care how it works, as long as it’s simple. The last thing they want is 50 different boxes that they need to connect. If there are to be the billions of units that everyone is talking about, we need to make it simple for the consumer. The good thing is that instead of having multiple standards all claiming to be the best, we now have people coming together, recognizing each other’s strengths in different areas and pooling their talents.

VH: You must be experiencing this first hand, Graham, as the last few months have seen you [EnOcean Alliance] announce partnerships with many different companies.

GM: Exactly. We focus on energy harvesting but that’s a very small part of a big jigsaw puzzle. We need to make it easier for the other equipment manufacturers and the consumer. 

MC: This is all at the communications layer. Standardization at the application layer will allow the developers to come along and develop some killer apps. 

PD: I don’t think there will be any killer apps, per se, but a critical mass of apps that are just available, so there is something there for whatever you want to do. More of a killer app climate. If I have a roomful, houseful or carful of stuff and I have multiple options for everything I want to do, that’s when I know we have the killer app conditions. The killer app is apps! I don’t care who wrote the app, as long as there is an API that I can talk to.

 

VH: Can all of this really work? Is all this new co-operation [between rival manufacturers and IoT stakeholders] too much to hope for?

MC: Don’t worry, there will always be another mountain to climb.

DB: It’s going to take time to sort out. Remember what it was like 12 year ago when Bluetooth and Wi-Fi came out? They all said Bluetooth would be dead because Wi-Fi had stronger range and throughput was better but both found their niche. All the different standards out there now will find their niche but it’s going to take time. I expect it’ll take five to seven years before all the smart home offerings settle down, based on their different use cases. The smart car too. The market will sift it out.

 

BM: It’s not like this [the problem of competing standards] has stopped. Just before the show the Wi-Fi Alliance announces the Halo standard, arguably to compete with the other low power wireless standard. Then you’ve got the radio guys offering different generations of standards. It’s easy for Allseen to say they don’t care what the radio is, but clearly the radio guys are going to care…

PD: We say something very different. We say to the competing standard bearers “make your engineering choices”. The standards really are engineering choices, but I just want the end user systems to work. We’ve seen this story before. Remember when they used to recommend which computer interfaces a computer app was ‘best when viewed with’? There would be two different hypertext protocols and three or four different browsers on your machine! Depending on which web site you went to you had to select a browser and a stack. Then came HTML 4 and the manufacturers suddenly realized something: we’re arguing over the wrong things. We should be competing over content, delivery and experience. That’s the real value. Not the standards.

As soon as we can get away from ‘my protocol is better than your protocol’ and start talking about who delivers the best value, then IoT will be on an upsurge in productivity.

DB: That’s a great example. The IoT industry has got to have its HTML 4 moment, when we realize we can standardize on one system and stop spending so much money on supporting multiple alternatives.

PD: It was brutal, but in two or three months, HTML 4 made everyone flip over and go to the same platform.

MC: Some of the new standards like Halo will take a little while to get adopted, but when they do the silos will start narrowing down. But we always will have silos. You can call them vertical markets, like medical and consumer and automotive. New markets will emerge. This year we will see new certifications coming up.

 

VH: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are more or less the old guard: are they still IoT standards?

MC: I would question if they are. Wi-Fi is a hub and spoke configuration. Bluetooth lends itself a little closer to the consumer IoT markets.

JCL: I tend to agree with you but something still could happen with Wi-Fi because it has the enormous advantage of having the infrastructure in place.

PD: A lot of these choices are in an interim space. Soon they won’t matter. In the UK and Germany, for example, Wi-Fi doesn’t work because your houses are made of stone and concrete, but you can use Ethernet or Powerline. It’s the layer above that matters. 

 

BM: You’re absolutely right there are two separate discussions we can have here. In the consumer space, the smart phone kicked off a lot of the interest in IoT that’s being shown now and the phone has become the control device for most people. Smart phones have Wi-Fi cellular and Bluetooth, so those will be the technologies for the smart home. So I wouldn’t dismiss Wi-Fi and Bluetooth just yet.

DB: It comes down to definitions. In my business [consumer, smart homes] we define IoT as the last 100 feet. Now there are hundreds of thousands of low power Bluetooth enabled devices - like door locks - coming on the market. So in the Smart home, Bluetooth will be very important.

PD: When you have to flip through pages of apps, to find the one for unlocking the door, which you have to have in front of you to make Bluetooth work, it’s possible we could be accused of over complicating the smart home.

MC: That’s why I believe the mobile phone will be the focal point of the intelligent home. It’s personalized and it’s something you have control over. It deals with your own desires.

BM: Securing and authenticating over all these devices will be incredibly important and that’s where the smart phone will be central.

GM: A smart home will have between 100 and 200 connected devices. How are you going to power them all? You can’t give each a battery. You’ll need energy harvesting for this. The markets are evolving so chipsets can use energy harvesting, but that’s not available to Bluetooth yet.

 

BM: Smart grids, utilities and cities will need tremendous amounts of sensors all of which will need power. That’s where energy harvesting will have to come in.

RA: We’re seeing heterogeneous networks in smart cities. Wi-Fi doesn’t do the job a lot of the time because of the sheer distance. We’re always using a mixture and in turn a lot of the applications have different formats.

MC: I think smart cities will evolve out of Europe before the US. You have places like Liverpool that have invested a lot of time and money. You have old infrastructures like water and sewage and roads that are just as important to monitor as electricity.

 

VH: But will smart city technology work in old cities, or should it be applied to newer builds?

PD: Top-down creation of a smart city may be a bit too ambitious. But building a smart home, and extending the conversations of the intelligence washing machine and solar panels with the utilities, so they interact with the grid and the sewage systems with maximum efficiency, could be a way of building a smart city by increments, from the bottom up.

RA: Some of the smart city apps are mission critical. The control of home energy cannot rely on the consumer systems, because it absolutely has to work.

MC: The good thing about smart cities is that governments, at local and city level, will mandate these big projects. Right now, in the consumer markets, this is all optional. Even in the US, where smart meters have been installed by the utilities, home owners have the option to say no.

 

BM: Yes, historically it has been Europe that has led but I do think the US is catching up now. There is an initiative from the White House and AT&T is planning a major investment. The increasing urbanization of the population has driven the need for better management of limited resources and the changing weather patterns have applied additional pressure on the authorities to take action with smart city technology. Electricity and water have to be managed much more precisely and we haven’t even touched on transport yet.

PD: Consumers are going to have to start paying a lot more for certain resources and when that happens they will demand to be able to manage it properly.

JCL: It’s too hard to automate the control of water at the moment -

PD: Yes, but if it comes down to the consumer being made aware of their decision, on a micro-market level, that might be able to influence their decision. So if they were reminded of the cost of running the tap, for example, they might be more mindful about preserving water.

RA: A large percentage of water is lost by utilities through leakage in the system. That’s a perfect problem for IoT to solve, but some utilities don’t care so much because the consumer has to pay.

 

BM: If they are paying to implement street lighting, they should look at the incremental costs of adding some extra intelligence to give an added level of management and whether there is a justifiable savings divided.

GM: In 2022 there is legislation coming in through Europe that says all new buildings have to be zero energy. And in 2050 there is legislation coming in that means you will have had to retrofit everything in your building from 2010 to save 80% of the energy on your building. So it’s not just about management of resources it’s about using less of them. To do this we’ll need the IoT and energy harvesting. In order to save the energy you need to know the status of the building.

 

VH: Everything we are talking about here, every aspect of IoT, is about data and its manipulation. How can that be analyzed and acted upon without creating a whole new raft of security issues?  

PD: I hear this all the time and I always ask: exactly what data do you mean? My home and the national grid don’t need to share a lot of information, unless I want to consume some resources from that grid. Even then, it’s just a conversation about whether it’s OK to use some electricity and whether it’s available and at what price.

RA: Yes, but it might be the case that the grid needs to know what devices you are using and what consumption you are making. Would you be happy sharing that?

PD: No way! I already have that situation with certain Internet service providers. I don’t want my utility knowing everything about me too. But I am willing to share information about wanting to buy a small amount of a resource.

RA: Well, we share our GPS location information in order to use, say, Google Maps. It might be the case that we need to share some appliance information in order to use some resource.

PD: Yes, I understand that, but there’s a difference between that and all my appliance use data being monitored so that an insurance salesman knows when the best time is to makes an uninvited sales call on my house.

 

VH: Do we want every company to know where we go, what time and how fast we drive? Do we want our local government to know when we exceed the speed limit so they can take money out of our bank account?

PD: Google does!

RA: Yes, Google knows all the data, but it doesn’t use it. It’s strangely ethical. But once the data gets into the cloud, it’s very dangerous.

BM: It’s going to be wonderful if all these companies provide all this technology and infrastructure out of the goodness of their heart. But this has to be around new business models. When you’re talking about putting billions of devices into the IoT that means these gadgets will become commodities real quickly and the profit margins on them will become very slim. So the real value in the whole model will be in the data. The money will be in accessing data and there’s even talk of a model for brokering of data.

Google is an advertising company, albeit an ethical one, and it will make its money from sending you an advert for sweaters when it sees that your local temperature falls below 50 degrees. We have to be very cognizant of that and clearly the FTC [The Federal Trade Commission] is aware that this will be an issue moving forward.

MC: It is very important because [data is] a bundle of assets that will be available. Cities are starting to look at privacy laws along the lines of fraudulent use of data. Data should be packetized so that it can only be used for specific purposes. Privacy will be an issue because there is a market for using that data where your movements are tracked.

DB: The wearable gadgets will provide a whole [data privacy] minefield too.

PD: The APIs that the manufacturers will have to offer in order to create interoperability will open the gate to all that information. The boy from Latvia who built that security app you downloaded will now be able to access all that information you were trying to jealously guard. As soon as Fitbit gives an API for developers to use that gives everyone license to get in and access all your private information.

 

VH: My head is starting to hurt now! So in addition to the myriad of existing IoT standards we are seeing now, can we now expect to see a whole new layer of privacy standards being created on top?

RA: The formatting of the security systems is going to be hard.

BM: Can we expect to see more government involvement?

RA: Well, we have to create open data standards somehow.

 

VH: Where is the global alignment going to come from? Trade organizations can regulate across their industries but there is never going to be a global authority to impose standards. Each country will have its own view on what their priorities are. Can this ever work?

 

MC: It’s going to [be hard] to get all the different countries to agree on security. Yes, it has worked well with the trade organizations at layer 1 or 2 level but as you go up the stack it gets more complicated.

PD: Security is another term that covers a multitude of situations. The security model of ‘things talking to the cloud’ and the security model of ‘the cloud’ itself are two entirely different things.

RA: When it works, it’s driven by customers. In our case, utilities might want a rock solid proprietary model. In banking, the customer dictates how it will work for them.

DB: They’ve found some real security issues in the connected car. But the [car equipment manufacturers] have responded real quickly to the flaws that were exposed in the last 12 months.

PD: By the same token, if we get property developers coming to us, we know we have to put a scheme together to make it manageable.

 

BM: It would be interesting if some of the big consumer manufacturers got together and hammered out between them their own framework for securing all these devices.

MC: Surely they could join the consortiums that are already in place.

PD: I would say no, they couldn’t, because you can’t legislate for privacy in a standard. The privacy issue is different from what the manufacturer consortiums are dealing with now. It’s the global top 5 retailers, the Walmarts and so on , that need to come together to work out what the top priorities are for their business. Whatever the privacy problem is, they’ll solve it.  They’re 50 per cent of the retail channel in the world.

MC: I’d take a slightly different approach on that. I’d say the retail channel need to go to standards organizations like AllSeen.

 

VH: To finish off. It seems that just as good things are put into place to bring IoT closer, something new emerges that needs to be done. Is IoT closer now than it was 12 months ago? Or is it a case that the more we know, the more we realize what we don’t know?

 

BM: All the different elements of the industry, from the makers of 5G equipment to the network providers to the gadget makers, are all bringing it closer to reality. But we should realize that IoT is never going to be a uniform product, like High Definition TVs or Blu-Ray boxes, where all of a sudden there will be a sudden surge in demand. There are many disparate areas, and they will all get there in their own speed. Still, I see a better future for IoT than I did this time last year.

PD: The level of questions I get asked has improved. Once it was about theoretical stuff, such as ‘which radio am I going to use’? Then it was about ‘am I going to build a standalone product or a networked one?’ Now, the questions are about processes much further down the line. They’re asking about security and privacy, trust and metadata and sharing information. That tells me we’re getting into the business level!

MC: We’re getting into the delivery phase now.

GM: I’m very excited now, you can see practical uses of the smart home and all the elements are working. We have the technology in place that just wasn’t here 36 months ago. But the question is over how the market will adopt the technology. Now we need the killer apps.   

RA: At industry level, these days, it’s not about which technology to use but about what the business value is and how to get it. When companies start to identify the money, that’s when you know you’re getting into a period of acceleration.

JCL: We’ve moved a long way especially in the consumer and the smart home. The utilities and industrial space still have a long way to go. Healthcare needs a lot of work, but that’s great for a company like us as we can go and play there now.

DB: I think there is a big green field out there. There are a lot of opportunities that have not been discovered. What’s been great over the last year is that there have been some powerful alliances. People are focusing on usability from the customer perspective, which will create the pull. That’s when we can declare success and victory.

 

VH: It feels like the IoT is getting bigger every day and there’s an amazing sense of coming together. I feel confident that the IoT will become a reality….. any time in the next one to 20 years!


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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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