Today’s IoT reality is that we’ve got an enormous and rapidly growing number of Things being connected to the Internet, but very few of them talk to each other. If I buy two different thermostats, I need two different apps. But, aren’t these apps doing the same thing? After all, they’re just controlling the temperature. Why can’t I control both thermostats from the same app and choose which app I prefer? Each Thing lives on its own island, speaking a different language. For every Thing, I have to learn how to use its app to control it. Do I even want an app that talks to my dishwasher?
I like the Nest and Honeywell thermostats and their easy-to-use app. I can easily turn down the temperature when I’m not home to save energy. Each of these thermostats has their own app, but each app can only talk to their respective thermostat. My Doorbot app will show me who is at my front door and even send me a live video feed and enable me to talk to the person at the door and then unlock the door! Another app for my network IP camera shows me an exterior view of my home so I can keep an eye on things when I’m traveling. Yet another app will show me how much electricity my home is currently consuming. I can adjust the volume and change the music source from my Onkyo home theater receiver from my phone as well. Lots of apps, none of them talk to each other.
One app, lots of devices
There are apps that will control many IoT devices at the same time. I’m using a HomeSeer system to talk to the nearly 50 light switches, door locks, thermostats, energy monitors and cameras in my home. The interface to HomeSeer HS3 is either a web browser or the much friendlier HSTouch app on my tablet or phone. HomeSeer isn’t the only multi-device application available today. There are a lot of new players in the home automation space from Lowe’s Iris, Staples Connect, Quirky Wink, SmartThings, Revolv and a rapidly growing list of startups. The problem with all of these applications is that they have built a few bridges between the largest islands but there are so many more devices that are not supported. All of these devices are on their own island, speaking their own language, using their own RF protocol with no way to connect to each other. But without connecting to each other, we lose the real benefit of the IoT – to make life easier for humans.
Many IoT devices don’t make any sense at all if they are managed individually using their own app. Do I really want to control each light bulb in my home one at a time? I’ve got a dozen lights in my kitchen which are controlled using three Z-Wave enabled light switches which replaced the original toggle switches installed by the builder. One light group is over the sink, one fills most of the rest of the kitchen with light and the third is an under-the-cabinet mood light. While I could click on a dozen buttons on my phone and control each light individually, I don’t have time for that. Instead, I have a motion sensor that detects motion in the kitchen and depending on the time of day, all the lights come on when I’m likely to be preparing a meal. At 8pm, the main lights go off and the mood light comes on until 11pm. From then until sunrise the mood light comes on anytime there is motion and goes off when there isn’t so we’re not stumbling around in the dark. Being able to control the lights based on other IoT sensors (motion sensors in this case) makes my life easier and saves energy. Each device cannot be an island unto itself with its own app. We need bridges between the islands, or better yet, a high-speed rail system.
Thread to the rescue?
Google (via Nest), Samsung, ARM and several other founders have created the Thread Group. Its mission is to build the bridges between the islands. Apple is attempting the same thing with its HomeKit framework. The IEEE is working on an IoT standard (P2413) and hopes to have it ready by 2016. These initiatives sound great and I hope they actually build the bridges that we can use in my lifetime. But I’ve seen this before and it has come to nothing in the past (though past performance is not a predictor of future returns). Thread is standardizing on the 802.15.4 RF protocol which is the underlying transport mechanism for Zigbee. Zigbee has for years been the “next big thing” in interconnected devices. It was supposed to have a common framework via RF4CE which would let all of the devices talk to each other. But that hasn’t come to pass. Why? I suspect it is because RF4CE is yet another standard developed by a committee of competing interests. Each member company of the committee tries to build walls around the shores of their island to protect their products and patents thinking they will profit. But if the standard doesn’t come into common use, it’s not a standard but just another obsolete document and no one profits.
Z-Wave is already here and highly interoperable today
Z-Wave from Sigma Designs doesn’t have the buzz that Thread and Zigbee have. Instead, Z-Wave device developers have been busy designing and selling products that already talk to each other without all that annoying buzz. Z-Wave has Command Classes which define what the device is, what its capabilities are, and how to securely communicate with it. Every Z-Wave device has to pass a rigorous certification test that ensures every product can talk to every other product. Of course, some products talk to each other better than those from competitors. But this is where each vendor can provide differentiation in the marketplace. However, every device can talk to every other device at a basic level even those from competitors. There are nearly 200 companies developing Z-Wave products with over 1000 devices already on the market. Do we really need yet another protocol? Do we need yet another “standard” that will take several years to agree upon when we already have one that works? Let’s get busy developing products using technology already in-hand instead of spinning yet another obsolete document. Let’s keep the beaches of our islands free of walls and come together building bridges on the foundation of work that is already complete instead of reinventing the wheel yet again.