The key to IoT success? Interoperability!

By: Toby Ruckert, Technical Editor

Earlier this year, 
I moderated a panel on “IoT interoperability” at a conference in London which brought together key stakeholders involved in the IoT industry to share their knowledge and showcase their latest technologies.

Even with so much research and development, and major budgets for IoT, we still don’t have a universal language for the Internet of Things. But at least there is some consolidation in standards and a unification of interfaces through which people interact with IoT.

Interoperability is the key factor behind the success of IoT – the technology that changes how we live, work, and play. For this panel I had the honor of bringing together:

  • Martin Garner, Senior Vice President, Internet, CCS Insight
  • Christer Larsson, VP EMEA, OSGi Alliance
  • John Davies, Chief Researcher, Future Business Technology, BT
  • David Thorne, Vice President, HomeGrid Forum

to discover the answers to the following questions:

  1. What role do open APIs play in speeding up innovation and achieving interface collaboration?
  2. How do vendors need to work with each other to achieve standardization across different devices?
  3. What open, international IoT standards allow interoperability between devices and what make them effective?
  4. How do you scale interoperability from device-to-device to application-to-application to system-to-system, infrastructure-to-infrastructure, sector-to-sector, region-to-region, and above for a truly global IoT?

Following are some of the key takeaways from the panel discussion.

On API’s

“APIs are essential for the exchange of data between different IoT technology stacks .” — John Davies, BT

Too many companies are building so-called “open” API platforms, and saying “everybody can integrate with us,” instead of being truly collaborative and pro-actively open to integrating with others (especially other open platforms). Instead, we see passive-aggressive behavior among many technology companies who are not truly working on establishing proper standards for actual interoperability.

While there is no significant progress towards IoT standardization or even a “universal language,” some common ground is developing in the way users interact with devices. In smart homes, developers must choose between various device makers platforms, for instance Apple’s HomeKit or Samsung’s SmartThings. But Amazon Echo is a good example where one (voice-powered) interface with an open API (Alexa Skills) has become an indirect source for collaboration between vendors, and where voice as the medium/interface allows to control products integrated with different frameworks, independent of the brand.

On “Standards”

Moving towards less standards rather than creating more new ones was considered important by all on the panel. This consolidation is already happening. Two of the largest standards groups in the consumer electronics space (the Open Interconnect Consortium – with Intel and Samsung, and the AllSeen Alliance – with Qualcomm, Microsoft, LG and Sony) merged into one industry body that’s building an Internet of Things standard. The Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) was front and center at CES in Las Vegas three weeks ago.

“Members of standards organizations shouldn’t ask for “options” within a standard. By definition, ‘options’ kill a standard.” — David Thorne, HomeGrid Forum

The real problem actually isn’t agreeing on a standard, but the Intellectual Property (IP) complexities that come with it. IP is produced from working and forming such standards. Thus the questions remain: Who owns them? What if a member leaves the standards group? And can they still use the standard they’ve helped to develop?

Eventually we may even still see a “standardized” IoT stack – as we once saw with LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) in web servers. But that day is likely still several years off.

On Interoperability overall

“Looking back at the last major industrial revolution (when electricity was invented), there were also many opinions and approaches to electricity and the respective standards. A clear decision was made and standards were formed only when governments intervened.” — Martin Garner, Senior Vice President, Internet, CCS Insight

The grim reality is that although we have many very good standards, a lot of projects cannot be done due to the lack of interoperability. From grids to plugs, anyone traveling between countries has experienced the odd incompatibility due to a non fitting charger.

So would governments today be able to decide on such standards? Likely not, as globalization has lead to an oligopoly (think of Apple’s plugs) which can drive global standardization across a wide variety of industries.

“IoT is still in an early stage, it’s normal to see many competing solutions/standards. Consolidation will happen over time.” — Christer Larsson, OSGi Alliance    

This year will be particularly interesting. We’ll see voice-based assistants (Siri, Alexa, Viv, etc.) grow in homes (and hotels) where we can feel comfortable talking to them. We’ll also see the rise of natural language, text-based (NLP) communication between humans and machines, driven largely by the popularity of chat bots.

“It’s our devices — fridges, computers, databases — that have to learn our language and preferred medium, not the other way around.” ( 2017 predictions, loosewire blog)

With IoT, we’ll also see the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). While users today expect their company’s ERP or CRM system to have a mobile app, the day will come (sooner than we think) when users ask their AI assistant to look up the latest sales figures or text the company’s enterprise intelligence system on WhatsApp or Viber for the latest customer research.

Our panel concluded with the fact that interoperability is likely to be confined to within the different types of IoT – Consumer IoT, Industrial IoT and Government IoT, and even within those to specific verticals. The day “IoT” bridges this major gap of a more integrated society still seems far away, and as an audience member’s question suggested, “AI may be the bridge”. While we agreed that many security and privacy concerns still need to be addressed, it will only take one “next big thing” to bridge the divide between the CIoT, IIoT, and GIoT worlds, becoming the spark for this new industrial revolution.