The Battle for Control Over the Internet of Things

One of the great promises the Internet of Things makes for us is the ease it will bring to everyday life. Imagine if everything is connected. After a long day, you hit a button to cue up your favorite show, and also program that you want a bath afterwards. With a single swipe, a new episode of the Game of Thrones spinoff comes on (the one where Ayra and the Hound travel around solving crimes; remember, this is the awesome future), and the bath slowly starts to fill with warm water, ready to be at the perfect temperature when you are done. It knows when the show is over, and the hallway briefly lights up for you to walk down, before entering the bathroom, where the lights dim and a Vivaldi concerto comes on. Ah, bliss.

The problem with that scenario is that it assumes, in a sort of anthropomorphic way, that the “Internet of Things” is a single benevolent entity. We do that with our technology – note the way people say “The Internet” as if it exists on its own, instead of it being the creation of a tangled web of public and private entities all with their own goals. It’s the same way with the IoT. Everything in it has to be created and controlled by companies with an eye toward making life easier, yes, but also turning a profit along the way. That’s not a bad thing; it’s generally a necessity for innovation.

The reality of our situation is that if your TV is made by one company, and your smart bath by another, and the mood music in your bathroom by a third, you’re suddenly dealing with three remotes and possibly incompatible systems. The good news is that there is movement to change this. The bad news is that major players want to change it for their own benefit, and the trenches are beginning to be dug. The outcome of this burgeoning battle, in which the Southern California giants and the Silicon Valley powers have shifting roles, could determine the future of mobile technology, wearable devices, and the Internet of Things.

Internet of Things, Elephants
When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. This isn’t the way the future of tech should be decided.

 A lucrative future

Let’s make one thing clear: far from being a dream, the IoT is real, it is growing, and it is going to make a lot of people a lot of money. The research firm IDC calculates that by 2020 the IoT will generate $9 trillion worth of revenue. To put that into perspective: that’s impossible to put into perspective. Last year Apple generated an impossible-seeming $171 billion in revenue. That’s 50 times less than what the IoT is predicted to bring in.

So needless to say, everyone wants a piece of the pie. And, more importantly, they want the biggest piece, in order to become the dominant player in the market. But they also know that if things are fractured, everyone will lose. That’s why there has been a drive to make a seamless Internet of Things, where you don’t have to worry about one device being incompatible with the other. Can you imagine if your toaster doesn’t know what your fridge is doing? No, you absolutely can’t.

Sounds great, right? Let’s get everything on the same page. The problem is, different companies have a different idea of what page that should be. Intel just announced a consortium of companies– including Dell and Samsung- that would be working together in order to bring us this seamless vision. Unfortunately, there is another, similar group, spearheaded by Quallcomm and containing such players as LG, Panasonic, Cisco, and Microsoft (!), that is doing the same thing.

Both have similar lofty goals: “(E)stablish a new industry consortium focused on improving interoperability and defining the connectivity requirements for the billions of devices that will make up the Internet of Things (IoT).” Or, ”(E)nable widespread adoption and help accelerate the development and evolution of an interoperable peer connectivity and communications framework based on AllJoyn for devices and applications in the Internet of Everything.” It really doesn’t matter which is which. They say the same thing, except one says “Internet of Everything,” which is both more aspirational and philosophical than dealing with mere things.

In such an atmosphere, accusations fly quickly. Both accuse the other side of trying to interfere with the noble goal of getting everything on one platform. It’s like when political parties say the other one is forsaking bipartisanship for refusing to give in to every demand, and the accusation is mirrored across the aisle. There would be no disagreement if you didn’t stubbornly refuse to agree with me.

Down in the Valley

Of course, companies like Apple and Google aren’t ones to wait for things to shake out. They have both attempted to forge their own way in the market. Apple just unveiled its HealthKit and HomeKit at a recent conference. Google, of course, threw their weight around earlier this year when they purchased Nest, a smart thermometer device that promises much more, as a backdoor entry into the market.

The problem with these is that, as awesome as they are, they are still very specific and won’t communicate across all platforms, especially if rival smartphone companies form alliances with the different players. The dream is that your phone could control everything. If everyone has their own fiefdom, you will either have to make sure every purchase is brand-appropriate and fluent in its compatibility, instead of just buying the best product on the market. That’s not how innovation should work.

Unto the Breach

So, any good news? Of course there is- that’s the great thing about innovation. People squabble and create vacuums, and those are filled. Spark Lab announced today that it raised a whopping $4.9 million in funding to create a universal operating system for the Internet of Things. They aim to create a platform that could, essentially, be the seamless system we have been looking for, and that everyone is fighting over. For more on this, and on CEO Zach Suppella’s thoughts on the IoT, check out the great Stacy Higginbotham’s podcast with him.

Now, of course, this won’t be easy. Everyone thinks they should be the dominant player, and everyone wants their share, which means more or less not sharing. But here’s what decades of tech advances have taught us: the best usually wins out. If Spark can create a system that is easy and valuable, it doesn’t make any sense for rival consortiums to try to hammer out substandard systems instead of buying in, and then competing to make the best products. The Internet of Things is about ease and fluidity. If customers demand it, we can avoid the rocks and whirlpools.

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