Mobility

Why the Internet of Things needs open source

The Internet Of Things has grown into a vast subset of mobility. But it could implode just as easily as it rose to fame. Is the key to open source protecting IoT devices from sudden demise?

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Image: Jack Wallen

It should come as no surprise to you that the Internet of Things already depends upon open source. Many IoT devices run one form of embedded Linux or another. In fact, without Linux many IoT devices simply wouldn't exist. What should come as a surprise to you is when companies that produce these IoT devices close up shop, they leave those devices out in the wild to die. Perfectly good hardware no longer capable of functioning...even when open source is at the heart of the device.

This needs to change.

What's the problem

In most instances, the companies that create the devices (those same companies that depend upon open source as a foundation for their products) layer proprietary software and APIs on top of the open platforms running the system...all of this on closed hardware. Because of this, once the company dies, that hardware is left to wither and die. And before you think this never happens...it does. Companies are purchased all the time. Sometimes these purchases are innocent and sometimes not. Every so often, a company will be purchases just to put a competing product to bed. This winds up leaving consumers with a bricked device. You might think a product would continue to work, even without updates or company support. However, within in the realm of IoT, those products depend upon services offered by the company in order for the device to function. So long as those devices use closed APIs and hardware, they could very well remain dead.

However, if more open source were put in place, should a product be "bricked" by a company closing up shop, those products could be repurposed by the open source community and the device have a chance of continuing on.

Paying it forward

This really isn't just about making sure a consumer-purchased device remains viable once a company shutters its doors and windows. This is about said company paying back the open source community for supplying the foundation that makes the device possible in the first place. Remember, without Linux, many of those IoT devices wouldn't exist in the first place. And so, it seems only fair that these companies pay it forward to the open source community. Should your company close up, hand the proprietary bits over to Git so open source developers can make something of your dead product.

It's one thing to stop supporting a product, when said product can continue functioning. But when that product is a part of IoT, the end of support generally means the end of the product. With the help of open source, that product can continue functioning...even if in an altered capacity.

Thing is, the open source community is a talented and creative collective of developers. You give them a defunct product and the APIs to communicate with that product, and they'll make something happen. We've seen this work, to perfection, for years with routers. Thanks to the likes of DD-WRT, those older routers can be given new life and new functionality. Imagine what the open source community could do with the now-defunct Revolv Connected Home Hub? I would imagine the open source community would do exactly what the original company had planned...create a single product that would be able to communicate with all IoT devices. So long as the other IoT devices offered open APIs, this could happen.

See what I did there?

Those tricky APIs can certainly get in the way. One of the goals of Internet of Things is to create connected devices that share data and seamlessly blend together. When companies close up the communication bits, those devices can't do the one thing they must...communicate.

We want Amazon's Echo to communicate to Nest (something that can now be done). We want Product A from Company B to work with Product C from Company D...otherwise, what's the point of IoT? You'd wind up having to buy all of your IoT devices from one company. And what happens when you do that and the company goes under? You've just spent a wad of cash on bricks.

Not if open source has anything to do with it.

I realize this is asking a bit much. Companies keep their secrets for a reason. But when those companies depend upon open source to drive the products that make or break their bottom line, it only seems right that they give back in some way. So why not open the products fully? Not only would that save the devices (should the company fold), the open source community could build on those devices, adding features, connecting more services, and generally making them more and more attractive to use.

Imagine your your fridge being able to communicate with your thermostat or Android Auto being able to communicate to your home hub or door locks. This, and so much more, could happen with the help of open source.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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