In pursuit of universal IoT standards

Universal standards could super-charge IoT growth, but can we get there?


The first remotely operated domestic machine — a toaster — was connected to the Internet less than a quarter-century ago, in 1990. The Internet of Things (IoT) doubled in size a year later with the addition of a coffee pot. Eventually, the Internet Engineering Task Force Network Working Group assigned the coffee pot its own specific standard, HTCPCP 1.0, the Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol, RFC 2324.

The Internet of Things has grown a bit since then, to somewhere between two billion and 10 billion devices, depending on who’s counting. But it could grow even faster, according to many of the biggest names in the global technology industry, if everyone would just agree on a universal set of technical standards.

The trillion-dollar question is, whose standards?

Dozens of consortiums, commercial alliances, and standards groups have been formed in the past few years to address that question. All of them profess essentially the same goal: to speed the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) and its subset, Machine-to-Machine (M2M) systems, by creating common standards for, as standards group AllSeen Alliance outlines, “interoperable products that can discover, connect, and interact directly with other nearby devices, systems, and services regardless of transport layer, device type, platform, operating system, or brand.”

The successful adoption of standards that are device-, OS-, and network-agnostic would put the Internet of Things on hyperdrive. It would also astonish skeptics who expect the standards battle to continue for years.

“Two guys are talking, and one is complaining to the other, ‘We have 14 standards. We need to work together to build a universal standard that integrates them all.’ And so then there were 15 standards,” said Alfonso Velosa III, research director for the Gartner research and advisory firm, paraphrasing a popular XKCD cartoon.

Actually, more like thousands of standards, created by hundreds of groups. There are even groups that have been formed to bring the groups together. All have in common the desire to expedite the growth of what some people think will be the biggest and most lucrative wave of technology since, well, ever.

History suggests winners will be determined by speed and marketing as much as by technical merit.

John Chambers, chief executive of Cisco Systems, pegged the potential economic impact of the Internet of Things at $19 trillion in value by the year 2022. To put this in perspective, the gross domestic product of the United States last year was $16.8 trillion.

The nascent IoT ecosystem, Velosa said, presents a colossal opportunity to all technology and service providers to try to establish dominant platforms.

“The stakes are enormous,” said Jeffrey M. Kaplan, founder and managing director of THINKstrategies, a consultancy in Wellesley, Mass. “We’re moving to a world in which everything is connected. Whoever dictates in the most real sense how it connects will be at a competitive advantage in terms of the exponential growth of the market, and anyone who fails to align themselves with the winning standard is going to be left out in the cold.”

History suggests that the winners will be determined by speed and marketing as much as by technical merit. The faster that companies can create functional implementations of their protocols, and the more momentum and supporters they can attract through marketing, the better chances they have of creating a de facto standard. And once something is a de facto standard, it has better odds for becoming an official standard.

It’s also a metabolic phenomenon. Traditional standards-setting bodies are often multinational bureaucracies that operate at deliberate (some would say ponderous) speed, in contrast to the warp speed of leaner technology and Internet companies. Money is a potent accelerant.

So, it’s no surprise that “certain vendors would like to hijack the market by establishing new sets of standards that work to their advantage,” Kaplan said.

And it’s also no surprise that each of the new consortiums and alliances is shocked — shocked! — that anyone would think they are vying to establish standards for any reason other than the overall swifter growth of the Internet of Things. “It may sound trite,” a spokesman for one of the groups said, “but we really do believe that a rising tide floats all boats.”

Some of those boats are floating in puddles and ponds. They might focus on protocols for a specific transport layer, or a specific industry vertical like energy or health care or transportation, or a daunting task like connecting dumb legacy devices from multiple vendors. Some groups are devoted to protocols for broad issues like privacy, security, communications, or intellectual property rights.

But some of the boats are assembling into armadas, with the intent of circumnavigating the IoT world. The platforms that are up for grabs are too big and complex for any one company to dominate, so alliances are crucial.

The flagships of these efforts are semiconductor companies — Intel, Qualcomm, and Samsung are the three biggest — with the prospect of selling billions and billions of new chips and sensors. But lurking just below the surface are Internet companies like Google, consumer electronics companies like Apple, and dozens of smaller companies aiming to carve out niches.

“Can’t we all just get along?” — Patrick Moorhead, principal of Moor Insights & StrategiesThe largest of the new groups is the AllSeen Alliance, created in December 2013. It is now an open source project managed by the Linux Foundation, but its core technology is based on Qualcomm’s AllJoyn framework for software and services connectivity.

The AllSeen Alliance’s “premier” members include Electrolux, Haier, LG, Microsoft, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Sharp, Silicon Image, Sony, Technicolor, and TP-Link. (Yes, Microsoft is now a member of an open source alliance.) AllSeen has signed up more than 50 other “community” members, including AT&T, Bosch, Cisco, D-Link, HTC, LiteOn, Sears, and Symantec.

Liat Ben-Zur, the chairperson of the AllSeen Alliance, is a Qualcomm executive. The head of the technical steering committee is also a Qualcomm executive.

Qualcomm’s arch-rival Intel, which foundered during the transition from personal computers (where Intel dominates) to smartphones (where Qualcomm dominates), does not intend to miss out on the next big wave. Rather than join AllSeen, Intel and a few partners in July created the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC). Its announced goal is “to define connectivity requirements to ensure the interoperability of billions of devices projected to come online by 2020, from PCs, smartphones, and tablets to home and industrial appliances and new wearable form factors.”

Members of the OIC aside from Intel include three other semiconductor companies, Atmel, Broadcom, and Samsung, plus Dell and Wind River. Wind River, a maker of software for embedded systems, is a subsidiary of Intel.

The OIC has not yet divulged its governance structure. Imad N. Sousou, general manager of Intel’s open source technology center, said the OIC has added more members since the group’s formation, but he said he was not free to name them yet.

Both the AllSeen Alliance and the OIC stress that they are open source projects, open to everyone and governed in true open source ways. Ben-Zur of AllSeen said the OIC members are welcome to come aboard the AllSeen ship; Sousou of OIC said he hoped that AllSeen’s work would eventually conform to the OIC’s standards. That’s where the bonhomie ends.

Sousou said the AllSeen Alliance is controlled by one company, and it is a “far cry” from being a true open source organization. “Rubbish,” said Ben-Zur, inviting everyone to visit the AllSeen website to see its governance and source code. As to the OIC’s claim to be more open than AllSeen’s open source effort, Ben-Zur said, “It’s hard to evaluate from just a press release.”

While they squabble, let’s pause to note that companies often join multiple standards groups, sometimes to address different usage scenarios and needs, sometimes just to hedge their bets. Often the goals of these groups overlap.

Intel, for example, is also spearheading the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), along with heavyweights IBM, Cisco, AT&T, GE, Microsoft, HP, and Samsung. The IIC was formed in March with a mission to “to accelerate growth of the Industrial Internet by coordinating ecosystems initiatives to connect and integrate objects with people, processes, and data using common architectures, interoperability, and open standards…”

These new groups join several that already exist.

There’s oneM2M, which describes itself as “a global organization creating a scalable and interoperable standard for communications of devices and services used in M2M applications and the Internet of Things.” Its members include — surprise! — Intel, Qualcomm, and Samsung, among a couple of hundred others.

Then there’s the Open Mobile Alliance, a consortium formed to deliver open specifications for creating interoperable services that work across different devices, geographies, service providers, operators, and networks. Members include Intel, Qualcomm, Microsoft, AT&T, ARM, Cisco, and, of course, Samsung. And, oh yeah, the OMA is a member of oneM2M.

“Can’t we all just get along?” asked Patrick Moorhead, principal of the Austin-based consultancy Moor Insights & Strategies. If the various groups can’t find accord, Moorhead said, “they play right into the hands of vertical systems, like Apple or Google.”

The Internet itself has flourished by hewing to common standards…Eventually, the Internet of Things will, too.Google and the chipmakers ARM, Freescale, and Silicon Labs have teamed with Samsung to create Thread Group, a consortium to develop and promote the Thread wireless networking protocol as a new standard for wireless networking in the home, supplanting WiFi and Bluetooth. Remember, Google paid $3.2 billion for Nest, and Thread was a Nest project. The Thread Group describes itself as “focused on making an impact in the market vs. a forum for engineering contemplation.”

Google makes its money “primarily by delivering relevant, cost-effective online advertising.” Relevancy is achieved by gathering copious amounts of data on its users and then connecting advertisers to those users based on their habits and interests. The more data it can gather, the more money it makes. And the Internet of Things will generate more data — intimate data — on consumers than ever before.

Apple, meanwhile, makes its money from its proprietary hardware-software ecosystem. Apple provides developers with a HomeKit software development kit to “provide seamless integration between accessories that support Apple’s Home Automation Protocol and iOS devices.” Its HealthKit platform extends the standards to medical devices and wearables, like the recently announced Apple Watch. Texas Instruments, Broadcom, and Philips are among the companies betting that Apple’s customers will continue to embrace the ecosystem.

Apple’s recent alliance with IBM gives Apple a huge boost into big business. The combination of Apple’s elegant data visualization tools and user interfaces (iPhone, Siri) and IBM’s corporate strength and prodigious data analysis power (Watson) could make Apple a major Internet of Things player, Veloso, the Gartner analyst, suggested.

Will there ever be One Standard to Unite Them All? The short answer is probably not, just as some parts of the world still cling to feet and inches, and some still drive on the left. But take heart: The Internet itself has flourished worldwide by hewing to common standards like TCP/IP and HTTP, and has resisted countless attempts by commercial forces to “embrace and extend” it with proprietary standards. Eventually, the Internet of Things will, too.

The following table highlights some of the major players in the standards space, their missions, and a few of the more notable members:

Group Name Stated Purpose Principal Members (alphabetical)
AllSeen Alliance “To enable widespread adoption and help accelerate the development and evolution of an interoperable peer connectivity and communications framework based on AllJoyn for devices and applications in the Internet of Everything.” Electrolux, Haier, LG, Microsoft, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Sharp, Silicon Image, Sony, Technicolor, TP-Link
Industrial Internet Consortium To “…influence the global development standards process for internet and industrial systems.” AT&T, Cisco Systems, General Electric, IBM, Intel
Open Interconnect Consortium “The OIC will take the lead in establishing a standard for interoperability across multiple vertical markets and use cases.” Atmel, Broadcom, Dell, Intel, Samsung, Wind River
Thread Group To “…create a networking protocol that can help the Internet of Things realize its potential for years to come.” Arm, Big Ass Fans, Freescale, Nest (Google), Samsung, Silicon Labs, Yale
Apple HomeKit To create, based on iOS, “… a high-level device connectivity framework enabling apps to interact with physical accessories in the world around us.” Apple

Cropped image on article and category pages by Simon Cockell on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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