lingua machina

Here’s the one thing someone needs to invent before the internet of things can take off

December 17, 2013
December 17, 2013

Part III in a series.

As Quartz has already reported, the Internet of Things is already here, and in the not too distant future it will replace the web. Many enabling technologies have arrived which will make the internet of things ubiquitous, and thanks to smartphones, the public is finally ready to accept that it will become impossible to escape from the internet’s all-seeing eye.

But a critical piece of the internet of things puzzle remains to be solved. What engineers lack is a universal glue to bind all the of the “things” in the internet of things to each other and to the cloud.

To understand how important these standards will be, it helps to know a bit about the history of the web. When the internet was born, it was a mishmash of now mostly-forgotten protocols designed to accomplish different tasks—gopher for retrieving documents, FTP for sending and receiving files, and no standard for social networking other than email. Then the web came along and unified those protocols, and made them accessible to non-geeks. All of this magic was possible because the internet is built on open standards: transparent, agreed-upon ways that devices should communicate with one another and share data.

The internet of things has yet to find its HTML

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Before your fridge can tell the cloud that it needs to be repaired, they have to speak the same language.AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey

Plenty of companies want to become the go-to for storing your internet of things data or connecting your devices, but there isn’t currently any real effort to create these standards, says Mike Bell, head of wearables at Intel, who is “looking at how we can kick something like this off.”

The result is that many objects on the internet of things can’t share data with one another, and can only be controlled from a single app or website. No interoperability makes it tough to connect your lights to your smartwatch, or pool data so that computers can anticipate your next move. The Philips Hue LED lightbulb, for example, can be controlled from a smartphone app or a website, but doesn’t play well with other devices.

A lack of standards means most devices on the internet of things are going to use existing methods of connection—Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the like—to connect to one another, and efforts like ioBridge’s Thingspeak are a first step to creating pools of data recorded from our things that can be shared by all our other things. But eventually, something like HTML, the language of the web, will be required to make the internet of things realize its potential. “Interoperability is critical,” says Bell. “Pretty soon this default method of using bluetooth is going to break down.”

“Up to now every [wearable] device has been a cell phone companion,” says Bell. “Talking to the  phone through bluetooth gives me security and a profile, but as we go to more interesting and autonomous devices, these may have their own Wi-Fi or cellular radio to the cloud. Why should I have to get home and plug [my wearable device] into a USB port on my computer?”

Accomplishing this will mean giving devices the ability to autonomously configure themselves and discover and connect to each other, all of which simply isn’t possible now. And all that connectivity comes at a price: battery life. Fortunately, a number of teams are working on connection method that convey data more slowly than conventional methods, but are easier on battery life.

Google’s early lead in defining and controlling the internet of things

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Delicious milk chocolate-covered wafers aren’t the only thing Android is about to devour.The Hershey Company

Once all our devices are connected, it’s anybody’s guess who will control the data they generate. Standard formats for storing and exchanging that data will also need to be established. Google has an accidental head start in this area, should it choose to use it, because its Android operating system is already powering most of the smart connected devices that are for sale. I say accidental because I once asked the head of engineering at Google whether it was a challenge to develop Android given that it’s used in so many devices other than smartphones, and he insisted that it’s not a hardship because his team is focused exclusively on Android for smartphones, and all other uses are a consequence of opportunistic developers taking advantage of the fact that the Android is free for use by anyone.

An even bigger advantage is simply that Google, through its mobile phones, Google Glass and ability to transform any new source of data about a person into ad dollars, has a head start on gathering the kind of data that makes connected devices more useful and contextually aware. Google Now is an obvious starting point for anyone wondering what the internet of things is actually for. Quentin Hardy, a technology editor at the New York Times, has quipped that it would be like Skynet, the evil computer network in the Terminator movies, but ad-supported.

Trillion-dollar opportunities

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Now that the internet of things is set to explode, regulators like FTC chair Edith Ramirez are taking an interest.AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The opportunities in the business of connected objects are enormous, or so analysts say. In 2014, for the first time machines will generate more data than humans, according to Andrew Milroy, an analyst at growth consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. Cisco says the “internet of everything” will generate $14.4 trillion between now and 2022, GE says the “industrial internet” will add $10-$15 trillion to the global economy between now and 2030 (pdf), and McKinsey estimates the internet of things will be worth between $2.7 trillion and $6.2 trillion a year to the world economy by 2025. Some of these numbers are likely to be exaggerations—a result of the internet of things being a terribly generic term. Rolling every connected device under that name gives the internet of things credit for a lot of technologies that already exist.

One thing standards bodies and companies wishing to influence them will contend with could be regulators. Already, the US Federal Trade Commission is taking an interest in what kind of data companies are gathering through the internet of things and what they’re doing with it. Aside from privacy, one reason regulators are poking around is that the security implications of the internet of things are truly frightening. What was probably a joint US/Israeli team was able to temporarily shut down Iran’s uranium enrichment program because many industrial facilities are already part of the internet of things by virtue of internet-connected industrial control systems. Once our homes, cities and bodies are connected, hackers will be able to do a lot more than steal our financial data and shut down our online identities—they’ll have the power to reach through cyberspace and hack our physical world.

Read parts one and two in this series: 2014 is the year of the internet of things—no, seriously, we mean it this timeHow the “internet of things” will replace the web

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