What’s Holding Up The Internet Of Things?

What’s Holding Up The Internet Of Things? This question was posed by in a blog post where he concludes IoT’s problem is that there is “no lingua franca.” The blog post mentions several competing protocols and scores big points for mentioning Pub/Sub at all and for generally getting IoT issues almost right. But he concludes the turning point will be “will be when economic incentives push device makers to share access to their controls and to the data their gadgets generate.” That’s not entirely accurate. Those economic incentives exist today.Here and now. The question is “on whose terms?” It isn’t that the economics need to change. It is that device manufacturers let go of the idea that they, and not the device user, are the first owners of the device data.

What is holding up the Internet of Things is that people do not want to buy devices that deeply penetrate their veil of personal privacy and then send fine-grained data about them back to device manufacturers.

Case in point – smart meters have faced stiff opposition from consumers to the point that many jurisdictions felt the need to pass laws or otherwise make them mandatory. The utility industry and the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers even held a webinar to figure out why people aren’t buying and concluded we don’t like smart meters or appliances. Meanwhile over at Kickstarter, projects like Ube and Neurio are massively and routinely oversubscribed. Neurio is a whole-house, real-time smart meter you install yourself, and Ube builds smart outlets and switches that meter per socket and in real time. It’s not that we don’t like smart appliances or smart metering, it’s that WE WANT TO BE THE FIRST OWNERS OF OUR OWN DATA.

Of course, if we are the first owners of our own data, then the device manufacturer cannot trust the data they get back from us unless it is signed. Currently those manufacturers who need to trust the data deliver it via a TLS tunnel so that they are first recipients of it. They trust the unsigned data because it arrives in the context of that TLS tunnel and so the device owner cannot intercept and  modify it.  In order to make the Internet of Things work, vendors will need to sign the data as it leaves the device so they can trust it even as the secondary or tertiary recipient of the data.  That’s a big problem because IoT devices are only just becoming capable of crypto and few companies have the means to manage it on the devices.

Vendors must also allow in their business model the possibility that consumers do not allow that data out of their network and instead process it all locally. The utility smart meter needs to talk to the utility company in order to function but does the LG TV really need to phone home every time you turn the set on or off or change a channel? Or send LG the file names on the USB drive you plug in or the names of all the files on your network share? The audacity to assume device owners don’t want first access to their own data and the arrogance to hoover it all up and send it back to the mother ship boggle the mind. No wonder people are leery of buying “smart” devices. When manufacturers treat us as factory farm animals who produce data for their exclusive harvest they should not expect an enthusiastic response. Make the user the first owner of that data and then if you as the manufacturer want access to the data ask for permission and provide some value in return.

The other problem that Brian mentions has nothing to do with the lingua franca of the devices and everything to do with the manufacturers’ death grip on our data. I might go to Philips and say “It’d be really great when my deaf aunt visits if I could get visual signals for audible alerts using your Hue bulbs. So please tie the bulbs into my security system, the telephone, the doorbell, the dishwasher, the laundry and the toaster.” Philips has to code all those interfaces because their device is proprietary so they pick the ones with the most potential revenue and maybe decide the security system and doorbell are good ideas. All the other items are too “fringe” to invest money in. Of course the new word for “fringe” is “long tail” and there’s a lot of opportunity there. Just not opportunity you can extract if your model is to jealously sequester your API in your walled garden.

Then of course the interfaces that are built are undertaken as strategic partnerships.  Sure, I can get the Hue bulb tied into my doorbell and home security – assuming I’m willing to buy a new doorbell and a new security service. Or, I could just buy Lifx bulbs and hack together any interface I want, inside my network, using IFTTT, using the vendor’s integrations or any combination of the above.

Philips realized their mistake early on, are opening their product more and finding wider acceptance. This allows others to fill in functionality that Philips overlooked or didn’t feel would warrant their investment. A good example of missing functionality is their interface. Screw in a Philips Hue bulb and all of a sudden that switch on the wall is worse than useless. You have to duct tape it in the “on” position to make the bulb fully functional and then are forced to use your phone to control the bulb. What LED “smart” bulbs need is a wall switch that passes power straight through but sends commands to the bulb using the API. That would then be a really useful system and more people would buy it. There are now 3rd parties interfacing their existing smart switches to both Lifx and Philips to provide this functionality and neither manufacturer needs to invest a dime in that integration to make it happen.

It is the open, local API that is missing from the Internet of Things. The lingua franca will come naturally when real people are hacking the integrations by the thousands and there is sufficient activity to build consensus and de-facto standards. That is the economic incentive and it is here today. IoT device manufacturers who provide an open API and whose business model does not require them to get exclusive or first-owner access to our data are thriving. One look at the thriving crowdfunded startup community and you realize that nothing is “holding up the Internet of Things” for vendors who choose not to get between device owners and device data.

Those vendors who continue to provide dumb “smart” devices with a select handful of “strategic” integrations within their pay-walled garden can continue to wonder about the lackluster demand. Legacy manufacturers can no longer assume their dominant position guarantees their market.

It is simple: If you don’t build it, they won’t come. They will just route around you and make it themselves.

Hardware is the new software.
Crowdfunding is the new VC.
Makers are the new kingmakers.

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  1. […] Rob Wyatt argues, “It is the open, local API that is missing from the Internet of Things.” To make the […]

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