Why your next IoT smart project promises to be very, very dumb

Without standards to tie together IoT networks, the Internet of Things will be dead on arrival.

Image: iStockphoto/ipopba

If you think you're in control of your Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem, you're almost certainly doing it wrong. In fact, the reality of platform building is that the only way to make it truly inviting to developers is to relinquish control of the outcome.

In open source, this has played out in Apache-style licensing overwhelming the GPL. Even outside open source, the most vibrant ecosystems (think of the Windows desktop or Apple App Store) largely function on the principle of open access and open development.

SEE: The Power of IoT and Big Data (Tech Pro Research)

As such, it's not surprising that in IoT development one of the greatest challenges is a lack of standards that would allow developers to express their creativity while ensuring disparate products can talk to each other. To overcome this early-stage confusion, some vendors are trying to create walled-garden approaches to IoT. Fortunately, they won't work, because if they did we'd be left with a morass of Hotel California-like platforms that pull data in but refuse to let it go.

Plant here and grow here

Take, for example, Scotts Lawn Service's announcement of a new IoT platform at South-by-Southwest:

Gro software is enhanced by connecting into Internet of Things hardware. Gro's hardware partners in the 'Works with Gro' program are a hand-picked combination of sensor and water controller manufacturing partners. Their hardware feeds information into Gro software.

The problem with this announcement, as David Berlind explains, is just about everything: "A bunch of sensors feeding some central software? Hand-picked partners? It sounds more like a walled-garden (no pun intended) of things that Scotts is trying to control rather than an Internet of Things (IoT) that are openly accessible via APIs over that infinitely more programmable platform; the Internet."

Nor is this problem isolated to Scotts, as Berlind said:

The truth is that the majority of IoT announcements that come my way seem to formulaically omit the notion of a democratized Internet of Things whereby everything has APIs that are reachable by developers, their apps, and ultimately end users, over a standard network protocol like HTTP (the Web). In the big picture, consumer companies appear to be in a race to repeat the same colossal mistakes that the technology industry made over a period of three decades; that is, as a part of an attempted land-grab, to build a bunch of non-interoperable islands of technology. It's the antithesis of the Internet and in particular, of the Web as a programmable platform....

What we're creating, Berlind notes, is a series of different internets that can't talk to each other. Should we care?

Speaking the same language

Of course we should. We don't really want "networks of things," whereby our phone talks to our garage door, but not to our lamp or thermostat. Berlind said it well:

At some point, there will be thousands of proprietary IoT 'platforms,' none of which can talk to the others. Some will involve stand alone products like a door lock. Others will be exclusive 'approved-partner' ecosystems. There will be lots of networks of things but no true Internet of Things.

It's understandable that vendors would want to lock-in customers (and developers) to a platform that rings a cash register every time I remotely turn on the lights in my home. But this isn't what consumers want. No, we want our different devices to freely speak to other devices and sensors, delivering value to us, first, and then thinking about the vendors getting paid for their troubles.

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This is the lesson of technology over the last 10 years, and possibly longer: We no longer pay for software, per se, but rather for the services enabled by that software. Walled-garden approaches to IoT are essentially attempts to get us to pay for software, not services; to pay for one company's lock on IoT software.

There is no way that this sort of approach will work. As McKinsey & Co. has stated in a report, "Interoperability between IoT systems is critical."

It's the Internet of Things—a network of networks, and not merely a network of things.

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Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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