Standardizing Tech’s New Wild West, the IoT

According to futurists like Google’s Ray Kurzweil, the rate of technological innovation is accelerating. Kurzweil’s theory suggests the Internet of Things (IoT) will mature much faster than the evolution of the traditional Internet.

Much of the requisite technology—including sensors, chips, transmitter, and app development environments already exists today. Toolkits are available to fast-track development for startups and DYI “makers.” As I mentioned in a previous posting, big box retailers are even offering bolt-on aftermarket sensors and transmitters to transform dumb objects into smart, connected products.

All of this rapid innovation is being amplified by the pressures of market potential; Gartner predicts $1.9 trillion in global economic value by decade’s end.

Amid the momentum and enthusiasm, there are three potential obstacles to IoT transformation. Chief among them are standardization and compatibility, security threats, and an ambiguity of vision.

Let’s take the issue of standardization, and how industry will likely overcome related challenges.

While we have a wealth of existing internet standards (protocols for writing, composing, delivering and storing data are available and highly mature), new issues stem from an emerging, heterogeneous ecosystem of diverse products, applications, and requirements.

It’s not just that there are many types of products; it’s that they are now being thrown together with seemingly infinite touch-points, each with its own set of available standards and protocols.

To connect even a modest grid of smart products, there are physical layers, numerous internet protocols, application layers, even lightweight operating systems working together ­– all with differing standards; this doesn’t even include standards for physical products or secondary controllers and apps.

It’s the wild-west right now when it comes to standards in the IoT space, which has led to skepticism and concern. “Standardization (data standards, wireless protocols, technologies) is still a challenge to more-rapid adoption of the IoT,” says Gartner analyst Hung LeHong.

And TechWeek editor Peter Judge goes a step further, likening the proprietary, standards-starved market as a “Game of Thrones-style bloodbath.” With so many competing and complementary technologies and products, vendors are aligning into groups to advance standards that are beneficial to them, while helping foster customer confidence and adoption.

Government and standards bodies are not sitting idly by either; the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) recently released new specifications governing M2M low throughput networks. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) are among the many groups also developing their own standards.

Industry members have cited standards acceptance as a bottleneck to IoT maturity—but this may be overblown. It’s probably more accurate to say that standards acceptance will be a byproduct of inevitable IoT market maturity.

How will innovators compete and enable communication with other products before the finalization of IoT standards? Developers will likely strive to be open and inclusive to as many standards as possible. Much in the same way an MP3 player can play any number of musical file formats, device APIs will be made to accommodate a number of protocols. App development platforms will allow developers to choose which formats they use to accept and deliver data.

As products become smart and connected, they can also be updated remotely with new capabilities—including the ability to process new standards and protocols. For devices where there is a hardware limitation to adopting different standards, cloud systems or intermediary conversion devices can act as brokers for transmitting data.

Standards and specifications are important, but it’s also important to remember that they are often pushed by private entities that have their own agendas and stakes in advocating one protocol over another. Standards fall in and out of favor, and evolve over time. What makes smart connected products so valuable is their ability to receive new software that enhances their capabilities. It’s precisely this capability that should allow IoT innovation to accelerate and push past lingering turf wars over specs and standards.