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The Sociology Of IoT: A Primer On Smart 'Things'

What is the origin of smart device standards and what's their place in the evolving IoT?

29Jul

What did the doorbell say to the thermostat? The question sounds like a preschooler's joke, but for the companies involved in the Internet of Things, queries like these are serious business. Long before anyone can know what two (or two hundred) smart objects might usefully say to each other at any given time, more elemental questions need to be asked. How do inanimate objects talk to each other in the first place?

The 'things' in IoT use numerous digital languages and dialects to send and receive information and take action. The choice of these different standards is sometimes determined by geographical region, just like human language. In other cases, they're selected for specific applications or advantages. Some standards have been optimized for powerful, continual streams of wireless data; think watching a Netflix movie on your tablet. Others have been designed for extreme energy efficiency and enjoy a long battery life. Some standards can move data between your ear and your smart phone; others will move it from room to room in a building.

Creating reliable user experiences out of this digital Babel is no easy feat. Unlike older technology format wars, there can be no all-encompassing winner to the IoT platform question. There are already too many disparate applications and interests at stake for any one technology to conquer every corner of the market. Instead of trying to create a one size fits all standard for IoT and the smart home, organizations that seek to collaborate and integrate the technology layer that makes objects smart will ultimately be the ones to harmonize the IoT's "things."

The Sound of Two Objects Speaking

Communication of any kind works through a medium. Wireless smart home devices use radio waves; conceptually speaking, there isn't all that much difference between your local Top 40 radio station and a smart home hub. Why did so many protocols evolve? In addition to commercial incentives, each was originally designed for an imagined use case.

As an example, Wi-Fi was introduced to provide a continuous flow of data that could move through walls and connect computers to broadband without cables. Bluetooth was built for a short-range data transfers, such as between a headset to a phone. Both technologies arrived with caveats that weren't terribly relevant before the IoT. For example, Wi-Fi uses too much energy to be practical for battery-operated devices, and Bluetooth was designed for point-to-point connections between two relatively proximate objects, and not a building full of wireless devices.

Subsequent technologies that evolved using the 2.4 GHz band, such as ZigBee, introduced smart products that spoke specialized dialects within those frequencies. Other technologies, like Z-Wave, opted to create a generalized society for wireless objects called an ecosystem, stressing cross-brand interoperability as a primary goal. Z-Wave, which uses the less-crowded 900 MHz, opted for an open set of descriptors and rules that would allow many objects of different types from any manufacturer to speak a common language. As a result of its decision to mandate interoperability, Z-Wave has so far been able to develop the largest ecosystem of smart home products (the original intended niche) in the IoT, and has essentially created what is now the do-it-yourself smart home market.

What Devices Need To Know

Beyond hearing the same radio waves, smart objects also need to comprehend each other's functionalities in order to do things together and create value. The answer lies in creating further characterizations for objects that let one type of device understand the capabilities (and limitations) of other devices they are communicating within a network. Smart object characterizations go further than just an IP address; they comprise an identity, a role, and a core set of talents.

These qualities are described through an ascending series of intelligence 'layers' that organize the abilities, and ultimately the roles, of smart objects. The topmost layer of device communication is called the 'application layer.' This most sophisticated level is where the objects get a specific identity; what they are, and what actions they are capable of taking.

This top-level curriculum includes 'device classes' and 'command classes.' The former names the type of object (identity -- what the 'thing' is), while the latter is a set of options and capabilities (abilities -- what the 'thing' can do). Many device classes have long been established for common smart objects, such as switches, sensors, motors, and dimmers. Relevant command classes are also well established, ranging from simple binary actions (turn on/off) to multi-device status requests, such as 'what are your current settings?' With clever new IoT products and services mushrooming so quickly in a fast-growing sector, manufacturers and service providers will need to continue their own learning, so that they can be as smart as their devices.

Who Gets to Decide?

In any market as potentially large as the IoT, there are bound to be major parties that can sway the commercial landscape. In the case of smart objects, the major stakeholders come from diverse backgrounds; competition not only arrives from digital powerhouses like Apple, Samsung and Google, but from multi-service operators (MSOs) like AT&T; cable TV (CATV) operators like Time Warner; even retailers like Amazon, which recently introduced its own branded smart home system. Ultimately, it will be up to the consumer to decide which platforms and products best fit their needs. The winners in IoT will be those who deliver a valuable consumer experience and show how connected things might actually make their lives better.

Smart objects aren't really all that smart unless they can do things that matter. Given that there are many thousands of smart devices deployed in the IoT already, it will be interesting to see how future smart objects continue to evolve; toward insularity or openness. The IoT itself crosses borders; we'll soon see if its resident objects and the technologies that drive them will do the same.

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