State of the IoT: Visible and Invisible Systems

Sometimes what might seem a boring press release (”we’ve renamed our standards organization!”) has real significance. It’s not just that the Open Interconnect Consortium (OCI) is now the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF). It’s that the looming battle between them and the competing standards-setters of AllSeen Alliance seems to have been averted. In fact, Qualcomm, the tent-pole member of AllSeen, is now also a key member of OCF.

Large IT vendors tend to have a relative advantage in a market where they can devise proprietary standards and lock down share. But the participants in OCF, who include Qualcomm competitor Intel as well as Microsoft, Cisco, GE Digital, and Samsung, seem to have the sense to recognize how much bigger the total market can be if everyone adheres to common standards.

If nothing else, it ensures that any smaller competitor you acquire already produces equipment compatible with yours.

Making (Some) Sense of Standards

There are a vast number of standards out there: IEEE 802.15.4, 6LowPAN, ZigBee…the list is long. How to make sense of it all?

First, recognize that these standards don’t all refer to the same kinds of things. There are various levels at which two devices must agree on how to communicate and work with each other. The three most important are physical, network, and application. Different standards apply to different levels.

The below discussion is, obviously, simplified and incomplete.

The Electrons

On the physical level, you need to agree on voltages, timings, and other physical specifics. WiFi and Bluetooth are familiar physical-level standards. The one to know about here is IEEE 802.15.4, a low-power standard used by ZigBee, mostly for home devices at short distances, but also forms the basis of some other significant systems, such as Thread.

The Bits

On the network level, you need to agree on how data packets travel and get to their destination. The big new standard here is IPv6, a successor to the standard Internet Protocol (IPv4), and allows for the vastly greater number of addresses required to connect devices to the IoT.

A variant of IPv6 called 6LowPAN works on those 802.15.4 low-voltage networks mentioned above. Thread, the standards group that includes Google’s  parent company, Alphabet (which acquired Nest), Yale Locks, and Samsung, is the big player in 6LowPAN, and right now that looks to become a de facto standard at this level.

The Meaning

On the application level, you need to agree on what the commands you receive mean, and how you tell each other what to do. This is where the standards being developed by OCF will be most important. If, as seems likely, AllSeen’s AllJoyn protocol disappears, the main alternative to OCF for the home market is Apple’s Home Kit—and interoperability has never been Apple’s big priority.

Does This Actually Mean Anything?

The fact that dimensional lumber was standardized in the 1920s means that any builder can go to any lumber yard and frame up your house in a way you recognize. Standards let manufacturers go off to create the best products they can, knowing that, no matter which ones you choose to buy, they’ll work for you. In a world where everything connects to everything else, that’s essential.

We can be pretty sure about a few things. The technology moves faster than the elephant-picking-up-a-pea efforts of standards bodies. Standards aren’t always chosen just because of technical factors: competition between significant groups with vested interests plays a role. Everyone wants to get to market, but no one wants to have to upgrade a suddenly obsolescent product line to meet new standards.

The result is an articulate discussion that is carried out mostly in the open. After all, the potential market is gigantic. And that transparency is one standard the market should strive to maintain.

Stay tuned to the ThingWorx blog for the continuing State of the IoT series.