The Internet of Things needs standards. Here's why

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The Internet of Things is currently developing in silos and until those silos are connected, end uses won't get much value out of it, executives said this morning during a panel discussion in Seattle hosted by Chetan Sharma Consulting.

"These devices have to do things that are much more insightful for you as a consumer than just telling you your heart rate," said Shankar Chandran, vice president at Samsung Catalyst Fund. "That's nice to know but it doesn't help me in my day to day life." However, combining that heart rate information with data from other sensors and then offering the user suggestions could be used for the prevention of chronic disease, for instance.

The various kinds of hubs, designed to connect devices made by different vendors, won't cut it, he said. "It happens not so much by having a hub but having algorithms so as a consumer I can get insight from multiple devices," he said. For example, developers might come up with novel applications by combining data from a home security camera, thermostat, and water heater. Today, data from those kinds of sensors, often manufactured by different companies, isn't easily combined. 

It's already easy to see some of the problems resulting from the way Internet of Things products and services are being built in silos, said Tim Moss, senior vice president at Ericsson. Operators and device makers so far have been creating their own ecosystems, sometimes on a very basic level that can cause problems, he said.

For example, there have been lots of scenarios, some real some just imagined, where people watching sporting events in a stadium can access unique information. Chris Murphy, a director at Adidas, described a soccer game that occurred in a stadium in Philadelphia in 2012 where players on both teams were wearing various monitors. People in the stands could look at information like player heart rate and how fast they were running, Murphy said.

"What happens if that stadium has a deal with one operator?" Moss wondered. That kind of simple marketing issue can create the kind of silo that prevents people from getting value out of the Internet of Things.

Bobby Morrison, president of Verizon Wireless for the Pacific Northwest, wishes for a connection among devices that his kids use. He has three Xboxes in his house plus iPads and Samsung phones. He'd like a centralized parental control system because when he sets an Xbox to shut down when one of his kid reaches the maximum screen time he has set, the kid picks up the iPad and starts using it.

"It's probably one of the biggest challenges we have," Moss said. "It's becoming more complex, there are more silos and no integration and no federation. But it's also a huge opportunity for someone who will help bridge that," he said.

The panelists were mixed on the solution to the problem. Operating system or device makers could come up with the solution, said Morrison. "There's no reason a Samsung couldn’t build an application layer to aggregate that information," he said. "But they won't be able to do it without standards. We need some element of consistency across platforms because it's the wild west right now. Without standards we'll have a really hard time governing and aggregating."

Chandran envisions a milddleware product solving the problem. "I'm not sure it's an OS as much as a middleware solution that can normalize data from different sensors and translate it and make sure you get data insights," he said.

The solution will surely be software-based, which might leave behind some vendors like Apple that are fans of vertical integration, said Ericsson's Moss. He thinks the industry can take a cue from what happened in the smartphone market. "Look at the results in the market. Look at Android's growth. You can't ignore the fact that it's open and creating a different uncontrolled level of innovation versus the really siloed controlled innovation" coming from Apple, he said.

Ericsson is so convinced that the future of the Internet of Things will be driven by software that it's spending around 50 percent of its research and development budget on software, he said. "That's a big statement if you know Ericsson's history," he noted. 

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