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State of Internet of Things standards in 2016: In search of the best IoT platform

On the very day that our Internet of Things R&D team held its first meeting, a major news story broke: A group of tech companies, including Qualcomm and Microsoft, had joined the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) – one of the leading standards groups in the IoT world – effectively forming a new entity called the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF). Its main goal is to “create a set of open specifications and protocols to enable devices from a variety of manufacturers to securely and seamlessly interact with one another”. [1]

The first question that came to mind was... So what? More and more “intelligent” or “smart” devices have been emerging, yet few of them are able to talk to each other. In spite of new standards groups being formed, major players have been promoting their own standards for the smart home: Apple has HomeKit, Google has Brillo and Weave, Samsung has SmartThings - the list goes on and on. The industrial IoT landscape seems blurry as well - no clear leader seems to have emerged as of yet. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around all the competing technologies - and not without reason.

The many layers of things

The main problem with the Internet of Things seems to be the complexity of the communication process. Each of the proposed IoT standards is a stack of technologies spanning multiple layers, rather than a single monolithic solution.

The lowest level is hardware and physical transport. WiFi, Bluetooth, Z-Wave, Zigbee, IEEE 802.15.4 - most of these technologies require a separate chipset to work and, as a result, more resources invested by manufacturers of connected devices.

Next, there is the communication protocol – the actual “language” used by the devices. MQTT, CoAP and D-Bus are just some of the protocols in use by various IoT platforms today. “Classic” Internet protocols, like HTTP and HTTPS, are also being used. The raw protocol is accompanied by additional abstractions – different platforms can define different message formats, even if the underlying protocol is the same.

Network topology is another complicated area – there is a bottomless amount of different setup permutations: Devices can “talk” to each other and/or to the cloud. Communication can be uni-directional (e.g. devices sending sensor data to the cloud) or bi-directional (devices sending data and receiving commands). Additional hubs can be used to aggregate and transform data from groups of devices before sending it to the cloud.

Each of the proposed standards encompasses some or all of the above-mentioned layers, imposing different technology choices, and thus causing headaches not only for device manufacturers, but also end-users who just want their devices to work together. This is a far cry from the smooth interoperability provided by the “regular” Internet we know today.

Shapes of things to come

At first, we were not sure what to make of the OCF announcement. It was only after some digging around that one particularly interesting fact came up. Both Qualcomm and Microsoft have been involved in the AllSeen Alliance, a competing IoT standards group, promoting an open-source technology stack called AllJoyn. Back in 2015, Microsoft had ambitious plans for the standard, including an AllJoyn API built into Windows 10 and new tools for developers. The OIC, on the other hand, had been spearheaded by Intel - Qualcomm's direct competitor in the microprocessor field. The collaboration between the companies is definitely a welcome precedent on the currently fragmented market.

The tech stack devised by the OIC, called IoTivity, will be the technology of choice in the newly-formed OCF. The most popular physical transport channels (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc.) are all supported by the stack. The communication protocol used by IoTivity is CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol) - based on the popular REST API model, but adapted for devices with limited resources. SDKs for popular platforms, such as Android and Linux, already exist, with more in the making. The OCF will also be taking care of higher-level aspects such as Intellectual Property - increasingly important in the patent-filled IoT landscape.

The tech world has seen many cases of de facto standards emerging from intense technology wars - the most famous coming to mind being VHS vs Betamax in the ‘80s, or Blu-ray vs HD DVD not so long ago. Does the OCF announcement mean a new leader is emerging? Only time will tell - with the likes of Apple and Google still pushing their own standards, it does not seem that obvious. One thing is for sure - the Internet of Things is becoming a serious business.

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