If ever there was a data ecosystem that depended on broad connectivity and interoperability, it’s the Internet of Things (IoT). But judging by the way the various IoT platforms have evolved so far, it seems we are a far cry from what many consider to be a workable environment.
The specter of a fragmented IoT is starting to set off alarm bells throughout the data industry as vendors, professional organizations and governing bodies begin to comprehend the irony of a universal network of “things” that is beset by multiple operational silos. But even as the development of common standards gets underway, the question is whether there is enough time to put them in place before the IoT becomes a ubiquitous facet of everyday life, or indeed, whether the development of things like autonomous cars and smart devices will have to wait until the proper standards are in place.
One group taking a hard look at these issues is the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), which has been trying to get device and application vendors, system integrators, network operators, service providers and virtually anyone else with skin in the game to take the issue of IoT fragmentation seriously. At the recent GSMA Mobile World Congress, iconectiv CTO Chris Drake said the tech industry is at a crucial stage right now given that the IoT could connect more than 20 billion devices as early as 2020. That doesn’t give a whole lot of time to build native interoperability into platforms, which in turn could have serious consequences not only to service optimization and performance, but security and governance as well.
Part of the problem, says Georges Karam, founder of LTE chip firm Sequans Communications, is that interoperability requires careful coordination across multiple layers in the IoT stack. Speaking at Mobile World Live, he noted that while the development of low-power networks like LTE-M and NB-IoT were relatively easy, this simplicity must now extend all the way to the app developer to provide Bluetooth-style connectivity, as well as certification compatibility, data plan adaptability and other functions.
Without this, says Nokia’s Jason Collins, we run the risk of creating not a single, integrated IoT but millions of discrete, single-application IoTs that accomplishes only a modicum of data-sharing. This would be akin to laying a dedicated Ethernet cable for each computer and application in the world rather than building everything on a common Internet. So far, he adds, we have managed to create an ecosystem that supports point-to-point machine-to-machine (M2M) use cases such as fitness tracking or utility monitoring, but this is nowhere near the level of interoperability required to drive truly innovative solutions. This is the main reason why Nokia has devised its IMPACT layered IoT platform, which provides a standard means for devices to gather and interpret data from other devices in order to tap into multiple applications.
IoT interoperability is also not likely to take hold until the sensors themselves become more intelligent, according to Bosch Sensortec's Marcellino Gemelli. To accomplish this, developers of micromechanical systems sensors (MEMS) need to overcome three key challenges: the physical constraints of the technology, the broad data requirements and competing platforms of the IoT, and the geometric scale that sensors will have to deal with after they are deployed. Using intelligent algorithms and third-party reference designs (since no single vendor can provide an all-encompassing solution), designers can achieve a broad range of integration, interoperability and connectivity metrics that allow devices to navigate their own way through the intricacies of a dynamic and constantly evolving data environment.
One way or another, the IoT is going to get done; too much money has been invested to simply give up due to lack of cooperation. The question is how far the leading platform developers are willing to go in order to provide a ubiquitous and largely autonomous universe of connected devices? Universal compatibility is often anticipated at the outset of every great technological development, but achieving such a state is the exception rather than the rule.
In the end, the tech community may have to settle for something less than full-stack interoperability, at which point the question becomes, how much commonality must be built into the IoT in order to present a compelling use case to the public?
Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering enterprise IT, telecommunications and other high-tech industries.