Why We’re At An IoT Inflection Point: The Case For Open Networks

It’s no secret that one of the largest areas of growth in the tech industry is deploying and optimizing internet of things (IoT) devices. After smartphones conquered our pockets, the world’s most innovative companies are building intelligent devices — smart thermostats, speakers, plugs, security systems and more — to control convenience and comfort in another extension of ourselves: the home. Big tech companies have developed brands, like Nest and Alexa, that are entering homes en masse as businesses battle for a consumer product market opportunity estimated to be worth $123 billion between now and 2021.

Hoping to lead this transformation, telecom and technology providers are offering a full suite of IoT devices to integrate with existing services, all converging to create the next era in the computing saga: ambient computing. Ambient computing, also known as ubiquitous computing, refers to the ability of nearly any device, in any place, in any format, to interact with one another and manage, process and communicate information. Ambient computing is possible because the underlying hardware and software of IoT devices transmit data on shared communication networks. Flexible IoT networks enable new applications that leverage multiple devices working together.

What does this transformation mean in practice? Today, audio-enabled devices are a prime example. It means you can tell one device — your speaker — to control another device — your thermostat — to lower the temperature without moving a muscle. But in the future, as more types of devices get added to home computing networks and learn to work together, the smart home ecosystem will open up a whole new world of possibilities.

Maximizing The Potential Of The Smart Home In The Next Frontier

As consumers and companies invest in new and improved smart home products, technology providers need to establish how these devices communicate with one another to make smart homes as effective as possible. The communication and interoperability standards used today impact both current functionality and future possibilities. Will your smart security system alert your smart thermostat if a window is left open so it can adjust the temperature to save energy? This type of advanced functionality is only possible if the thermostat and the security system are designed to share data and work together.

So, how can technology providers ensure they adopt the right technical standards that allow distributed intelligence to flourish, both now and in the future? Establishing best practices for the communication networks that share and manage the data from IoT devices currently in our homes, as well as the devices of our dreams, will maximize the potential of ambient computing.

Part of the journey for determining these best practices is learning from the evolution of technology leading up to ambient computing. Since computers were first invented and commercialized, engineers, thought leaders and entrepreneurs have always debated how best to integrate hardware and software produced by different operators onto one device.

Lessons From History: Evolution Of The Personal Computer

As computers evolved from mainframes to desktops, laptops, smartphones and now IoT devices, tech companies built both open, interoperable products and closed, vertically-integrated devices. In the 90s, Apple famously built its own hardware and software to create the Macintosh, a highly-functional desktop computer that marked a huge leap forward for the personal computing industry. However, personal computers (PCs) also had great success during this period by allowing various collaborators to build operating systems for their desktop hardware.

The divergent philosophies carried over into the next big shift in computing to mobile devices. Apple’s iPhone and iOS operating system revolutionized the industry and introduced beautiful, highly functional smartphones. But again, competitors like Motorola, Samsung and Google used their specialization in hardware and software to create Android and were able to compete. Now, a similar debate is emerging as mini-computers enter the home in the form of IoT. How interoperable and collaborative should we make this next wave of intelligent devices?

There are tradeoffs with both approaches. Tightly controlled and closed computing systems allow one engineering team to act on ambitious designs. For example, with a leap forward as big and unprecedented as the iPhone, Apple’s engineers needed to have complete control to successfully integrate the glass touchscreen with the software’s ability to swipe and zoom with fingers. However, this approach eventually limits flexibility and innovation, making some degree of open networks an important requirement.

Apple relented in its approach over time, licensing iTunes software to PCs, which expanded iPod sales, and opening the App Store to third-party developers, which led to the development of immensely helpful applications like Uber and mobile banking. Open networks and interoperable devices may inhibit the engineering prowess of visionary products initially, but they create seamless collaboration, creative applications and vibrant digital ecosystems involving multiple parties.

The Case For Open Networks And Interoperable Devices

Amidst these trade-offs, building interoperable IoT devices that can coordinate with as many other devices as possible, even those made by other companies, ultimately maximizes the effectiveness of ambient computing. By nature, one smart home device in isolation is not all that valuable — the value derives from its ability to interact with other devices peppered throughout the home. For example, the idea behind one of my company’s products is that a smart thermostat is convenient when it can connect with your phone, but connecting it to other devices — like smart speakers, outlets, security systems — makes it truly intelligent.

Having the ability to seamlessly communicate and integrate with other energy-consuming and generating devices, even those not on the market yet, creates network effects that maximize the value of each device. With most consumer devices residing in the home, it’s a prime backdrop for an ambient computing renaissance to transform the smart home sector.

So, can your smart plug text your phone if your child is playing video games past their bedtime? Only if devices are designed to work together in concert will this be possible. To fully take advantage of IoT devices and realize the potential of ambient computing, let’s build open and collaborative smart home ecosystems.


This article was originally published on Forbes.

Adam Paul