Standards will be the glue for the Internet of Things

Standards are an essential ingredient the success of the IT industry over the last 30 years.  Without them, product ecosystems cannot emerge, prices fall and users have the experience they demand. Properly applied they enable compatible solutions from multiple manufacturers that improve lives, boost productivity and foster new opportunity.

This is certainly what we expect from the Internet of Things. These connected devices have huge potential to unlock all kinds of value. The global Internet of Things (IoT) market will grow to $1.7 trillion in 2020 from $655.8 billion in 2014, according to research firm IDC.

The promise of the IoT is that millions of devices will talk to each other, creating convenience and efficiency in our daily lives, except it looks like the potential will not be realized. There’s a standards conflict, and consumers recognize this.

“There is a lot of confusion about standards with Google introducing Brillo and Apple’s new HomeKit,” Argus Insights warns in a report that points to a cooling of consumer interest in these devices.

“Add in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave and there is a lot for any consumer to grapple with during installation. Until things become easier and consumers don’t have to cobble together a total solution, I believe we will see this stagnation continuing for the rest of 2015 unless a new offering addresses these issues and revitalizes the market.”

This standards conflict extends beyond consumer implementations of IoT devices – different industries have grown their own M2M standards. In addition to the above some of standards used in M2M today include:

6LowPAN, AllJoyn, BACnet, Bluetooth (including Bluetooth Low Energy), cellular (including GSM/GPRS, W-CDMA, LTE), CoAP, Continua Health Alliance, DECT ULE, Eclipse Foundation, EnOcean, FI-WARE, GENIVI, HyperCat, LonWorks, M-Bus, MirrorLink, MQTT, OMA LightweightM2M, OneM2M, Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC), REST, Urban OS, Weightless, Wi-Fi, and Zigbee (and 802.15.4).

The environment is extremely confusing, not just for consumers. How can any manufacturer make the right decision when it comes to which standard(s) they should support when creating new products? What makes it worse is that IoT vendors aren’t just selling consumer devices, but also hardcore smart city infrastructure.

It will be difficult for any utility provider to explain how the collapse of one standard has led to all the streetlights in a city going out of action.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has created a new "study group" to develop international standards to enable low-power communications between machines and sensor networks for IoT/M2M devices.

This group will focus on, "standards that leverage IoT technologies to address urban-development challenges." It aims to develop full end-to-end architecture for IoT, in order to enable better interoperability between applications and devices.

“The coming five years will be crucial in ensuring that IoT technologies meet their potential,” said Chaesub Lee, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau. “ITU-T is very active in IoT standardization, and we aim to assist cities around the world in creating the conditions necessary for IoT technologies to prove their worth in addressing urban-development challenges.”

Meanwhile some in the industry already recognize the need to adopt open standards. "Open standards are simply better for developers,” said professor William Webb, chief executive of the Weightless SIG. “They minimize cost, increase choice, mitigate risk, encourage innovation and are sustainable.” Weightless recently rolled out its own Weightless-N Smart City network across London, which uses the white space system.

What makes these standards so essential is the sheer size of the market, which is estimated to be around 50 billion connected devices by year 2020, impacting nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Gartner believes only around 40 percent of connected things will be inside smart homes.

The danger is that if some harmonization does not take place, we won’t realize the full benefit of the Internet of Things, and instead find ourselves in a more confusing and far less effective scenario in which solutions supporting different standards won’t interoperate at all, as evidenced by Google or Apple’s seeming attempt to lock IoT device users into their platforms.

Such an outcome might mean our connected fridge or TV or gas drilling rig will need to be upgraded merely because we’re foolish enough to buy a different smartphone.

This means that rather than enjoying the convenient efficiency of an Internet of Things, we will have to grapple with a far more complex environment of multiple ‘Internets of Things’, with vendors locked in an endless struggle for platform dominance, similar to the VHS versus Betamax or HD-DVD v. Blu-Ray format wars.

That’s complex for consumers and threatens the potential savings for large scale connected infrastructure projects with the risk those standards connecting that infrastructure may not survive. Standards are required, find out more about the ITU attempt here.

For more on M2M please view our Internet of Things infographic and read some Orange Business M2M customer stories here.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.