IoT Scope: The War Between Standards and the Many Players Fighting it
The War of Standards has Begun
If this year’s CES has taught us anything, it’s that 2016 will be the year of the Internet of Things (IoT). We’ve caught glimpses of exciting IoT related products, services, and technologies in the past (Philips Hue and the Nest Thermostat among others).
Those devices have only scratched the surface of home automation, as you can now add garage door openers, washer/dryers, doorbells and more to the ever-growing list of smart home electronics, but we have yet to see these products work together to create the smart home we’ve always dreamed of. There’s been a growing revolution in smart home devices, but now that the technology giants have dove into the foray, the market is bustling with new products.
Given how saturated the smartphone market is, it’s easy to see why many companies are seeking to diversify into this newer market. That’s why 2016 is shaping up to be IoT’s break-out year. Who are the players, what are they creating, and who will win? It’s a bit early to make any definitive statements, so we’re going to provide the information you’ll need to pay attention to future developments in this rapidly expanding field.
Standards, Galore! Standards at War!
Life would be so much easier if everyone stuck to only a few standards, but life isn’t that simple. Each standard has its own pros and cons, and the market naturally gravitates towards the standard that is the most robust, inexpensive to implement, cross-compatible, etc. We’ve seen this play out time and time again in the software world, such as in the race to build the best mobile operating system. Clearly, Android came out on top as more companies adopted the OS to compete in the lucrative smartphone business.
However, the IoT space is a completely different beast. Here we’ve got companies competing to build the best chipset, the best OS, the best appliances, and conglomerates competing to push the best frequency for inter-communication between IoT devices. With potentially billions of dollars on the line (the Consumer Technology Association estimates that the Internet of Things will drive the consumer technology industry to $287 billion in revenue), expect to see these companies go all out in promoting their IoT offerings. Let’s explore things from the bottom-up to get a better understanding of the market.
First things first, you can’t have a home appliance without the necessary electronics underlying it. Old, “dumb” appliances had no need for features like Bluetooth, WiFi, and other sensors that smart home devices necessitate. Both big and small names in the industry have stepped up to the plate recently with reference platforms aimed at development and chipsets aimed at production. Among the key players you’re likely already familiar with include Samsung with the ARTIK platform, Intel’s IoT platform, MediaTek’s LinkIt Smart 7688 development platform, and Qualcomm’s development platform, Other companies are looking to embed their chips into your future everyday smart home products too, including Marvell, Broadcom, Atmel, and GainSpan. Who will dominate this space depends heavily on how what partners each company can acquire, which leaves the bigger names like Samsung, Intel, and Qualcomm in a favorable position. Still, it’s too early to say how things will play out. We’ve seen how manufacturing issues of Apple’s A9 chip culminating in what’s now known as chip-gate resulted in Samsung’s chipset business losing a major partner in a short time-spam. With the competition being so fierce, it’ll be exciting to see how things play out.
2) Operating Systems
Behind every great chip there’s a great OS. Windows dominates desktops/laptops, Android dominates smartphones, but who will dominate the smart home? Google’s Brillo, Huawei’s Lite OS, and MediaTek with OpenWRT are just some of the players we’ve seen before. MicroEJ is another player that has been building operating systems for embedded systems for years now and is making an entry into the IoT space. These operating systems are all based in some form on existing platforms but have been modified to operate on very low-power hardware. Each is taking an open approach to development in order to entice manufacturers to adopt their OS.
Operating systems aren’t the only way some companies are making their foray into the field. We certainly can’t forget about Apple’s HomeKit, LG’s LINK, Huawei’s HiLink, and Google’s Weave. With these platforms, you can build compatible hardware that uses these frameworks in order to have intercommunication between IoT devices and/or your smartphones.
Devices communicating with each other relies on some form of communication protocol such as Bluetooth, WiFi, NFC, etc. We’re intimately familiar with all of these after having been exposed to devices that cater to our smartphones that are built with these protocols in mind. But in the smart home, are these protocols sufficient? We can pretty quickly rule out Bluetooth and NFC as contenders given their limited range. WiFi is a contender and is already seen in many current generation smart home appliances, but with the sheer number of WiFi-enabled devices on the market, interference is a major concern. Anyone who attended CES can attest to this fact.
There are alternatives in the form of ZigBee, Z-Wave, EnOcean, and DECT (yes, this is the protocol that your parent’s old cordless phone ran off of), of which the ZigBee Alliance and ULE Alliance have formed around. Both alliances purport their wireless communication protocols to be the superior option for IoT devices, and several major companies have aligned themselves with one of the alliances. The standards war is just heating up, so we’ll have to wait and see which protocol most companies will gravitate towards in the future. There can be only one winner in this area, otherwise we could end up with a convoluted mess of incompatible IoT devices.
One Device to Rule Them All
While the major companies duke it out over whose chipset and operating system should prevail, most OEMs will likely rely on consumers using their accompanying smartphone apps to operate their devices. Which is fine, because smartphones are everywhere these days. Hence, we should expect to see some kind of integration of each new IoT device with your existing devices. Your smart home will definitely be smart, but it will take some time before you can expect to see a truly interconnected home. Unless of course you’re willing to spend a ton of money buying smart home devices from only a single manufacturer, you’re unlikely to be able to shop around for the time being.
Samsung is the exception here, though. Their new family hub refrigerator and their SUHD TV line-up are part of the company’s IoT strategy that deviate from the norm. Rather than relying on your existing smartphone or computer to control the smart devices in your home, Samsung wants you to spend several thousands on their highest end smart home devices if you want to control your smart home. Many people spend a lot of time in their living room and kitchen, so it’s not a strange decision to have the smart home center around the fridge and TV, but we can’t help but feel that Samsung is pushing these devices as a cash grab when competitors like LG partner with Google on Weave for their Signature appliance line-up.
The future sure sounds exciting, huh! With every cool new connected device there comes a possibility for abuse. Spying, hacking, identity theft, and other crimes are constantly on the public’s mind thanks to the proliferation of cyber-security attacks. With potentially every device in our home connected to the network, security should be a major concern to anyone interested in IoT products. We’ve got the standard ways of monitoring home networks and authenticating certain devices to access your smart home devices (passwords, fingerprint, etc.), but some companies are looking to tackle this issue in some unique ways.
On the enterprise front, PFP Cybersecurity aims to provide businesses a way to detect zero-day vulnerabilities in software. The company has created an external power monitor that detects tiny anomalies in power patterns from the baseline (which is determined through a calibration step before the system goes live on the network), which can occur whenever the software has been modified. PFP Cybersecurity hopes to eventually partner with chipset makers to embed their power detection chip into the boards that go on enterprise IoT devices, however the company is still at an early stage and is looking to make waves as the IoT field expands.
For consumers, you thankfully don’t have to worry much about sensitive data being stolen from your smart toaster or coffee maker, but a malicious actor could hack into your network to make these devices operate when you’re not home, running up your power bill and potentially causing you bodily harm should any fires break out. Sound paranoid? Consider the fact that hackers have demonstrated vulnerabilities in several smart car line-ups already, and the kinds of catastrophic damage to human life that could occur if such a hack were to occur in the real world.
If you’re looking to monitor the smart devices on your network, a company named Domotz provides a cheap solution for that. The product can be installed on existing raspberry Pi or NAS setups, or by purchasing one of the company’s devices that comes with the software pre-installed. It monitors all of the devices on your home WiFi (and soon, ZigBee) network and allows you to set up alerts and access nearly every connected device you own. If you own a smart home appliance, you can power on/off the device from your smartphone, for instance. The service integrates nicely with your existing home monitoring systems such as IP cameras and even allows you to remote desktop into your Windows computer so long as RDP is enabled. The product itself is available to install for free, but using it requires a $2.99/month subscription to use it. Not bad, considering the price of most remote desktop and IP camera software that this solution offers among others. We should expect to see products such as these in greater numbers as the IoT field expands, which is why the company is working on partnering with tech support services such as BestBuy’s Geek Squad.
This will be an exciting year for the smart home, and it’s looking like your smartphone (or maybe even your smartwatch) will be at the center of it all. Keep your eye out for developments in this space, but save your wallet for later. It’ll take some time for these companies to duke it out in this space and converge around a superior standard, and buying in right now may result in a lot of your devices being incompatible with each other. That is unless you’re willing to dish out thousands to buy into a single ecosystem such as Apple’s HomeKit or Samsung’s SmartThings.
Does the Internet of Things excite you? What are you most looking forward to? Let us know in the comments!