How to Choose the "Right" Network for IoT
The market for connected devices and the IoT (Internet of Things) continues to explode, as evidenced by the thick crowds thronging connected device booths at this year's CES (Consumer Electronics Show), and standing-room only attendance at CES IoT conference sessions. The flood of connected products released at the show included toothbrushes, mattresses, connected cars, home appliances, fitness trackers, watches, medical devices, light bulbs, garage door openers, TVs, and even "smart socks" that measure a runner's stride length, cadence, and distance.
Consumer product manufacturers massed as standing-room-only crowds for IoT conference sessions, hoping to gain an understanding of the technologies and standards. Those of us who have been in M2M and the IoT for a while know these choices are as fragmented now as ever, perhaps even more so with the increasing connectivity between devices with embedded wireless capabilities, smartphones, and tablets. The mixed bag of technologies used to connect the IoT, and the lack of standardization across product categories, proved to be a disappointing surprise to the manufacturers who attended Parks Associates' "Internet of Things: Connected Home" panel.
Where Does "Intelligence" Lie?
While device manufacturers face a large number of decisions when designing connected consumer products, the choices that most fundamentally affect the user experience relate to how the device connects to the Internet and its controlling applications. The Connected Home panel grappled with the first of two questions related to how a device connects: where the intelligence controlling it should reside. The panel took two very different views on this, promoting solutions where the intelligence resides in a home router/gateway/set-top box to which a device connects or in the cloud.
Three of the six panelists represented gateway/ set-top manufacturers (ARRIS Group, Hitachi, Cisco) who collectively favor deeply intelligent home gateways that serve, as Derek Elder of ARRIS Group described, as a "service portal to unify the experience of the cloud to the home and unlock revenue opportunities for [network] operators." Panelists representing low-power networking alliances (Zigbee and Z-Wave) also emphasized the gateway's role, though they are not as deeply tied to network operator revenue models since they use an independent gateway to gather information from devices in the home.
While Zigbee and Z-Wave have built up large alliances of device manufacturers who can share a gateway connected to the home's primary Internet router, other manufacturers such as Philips Lighting have decided to go it alone with their own gateway, such as the one that controls Philips' "Hue" color-tunable light bulbs. I wonder whether the "offboard gateway" approach to connecting devices within a home or business is sustainable: whether the average home Internet router supports multiple offboard gateways, and whether a homeowner can keep the whole set-up running when faced with ordinary power outages and interruptions.
Panel member Arrayent took a different approach to device connectivity: its "Arrayent Connect Platform" moves most of the intelligence to the cloud to speed device and application development and allow smaller "client" software on connected devices. Arrayent's platform "virtualizes" the device in the cloud, which means mobile apps connect to an electronic copy of the device, which in turn sends commands back to the physical device, such as starting the motor to open a garage.
This gateway vs. cloud conundrum represents only two of four "intelligence" designs for connected devices. Semiconductor manufacturers such as Broadcom and ARM are pushing controlling intelligence down to the device itself, with "system-on-a-chip" solutions, while Able Device's SIMbae embeds the device's control and application programming on its SIM card rather than its memory. SIMbae opens the door to hardware independence for M2M solutions and reduces both hardware costs and power consumption.
An increasing number of connected devices take the fourth route and skip the router/gateway entirely, interacting directly with a smartphone or tablet using low-power Bluetooth, including connected cars and fitness trackers. This places the "intelligence" somewhere between the cloud and the smartphone/tablet. While this type of connectivity seems to be straightforward, it may not be as reliable as more hardware-intensive solutions since it depends heavily on end-user intervention including downloading and using an app, pairing the device(s), and maintaining a constant battery charge on their smartphone or tablet.
What Networking Tech to Use?
Once a manufacturer decides on their connected device "intelligence model," they still need to choose a wireless networking protocol. The dizzying set of wireless technologies connecting products at this year's CES included low-power Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi, cellular, ANT, RFID, white spaces, FM, proprietary 900 MHz protocols, and REFLEX—the old two-way paging network. The choice of networking technology depends on the type of experience the manufacturer is trying to create for the end user, with considerations that include how far the signal must carry, required bandwidth, interference-free signal availability, signal stability, and whether it operates in unlicensed (free) or licensed (paid) spectrum.
An example of how this choice affects the end user experience turned up during my demo of the "X12" Sleep Number bed. In addition to collecting and reporting a sleeper's heart rate, motion, and respiration to the cloud over a Wi-Fi connection, X12 also features adjustable head and foot height and vibration. The rep who was giving me the demo was unable to activate some of its physical controls because of Wi-Fi interference. While that's not likely to be a problem in a private home, Wi-Fi connectivity may not be the best choice for a device intended for use in public places.
Ultimately, the choice of how to connect and control a wireless device comes down to how the reliability and performance of the networking architecture and protocol affects the end user value proposition. Many new devices introduced at this year's CES provide solid end-user value, including ADT and Lowe's Iris connected-home solutions, Honeywell's remote radiator controllers, DACOR's connected stoves, Neat's cloud-connected scanners, Dropcam's Wi-Fi Webcams, Schwinn's GPS bike navigator, and even the Gunbox, an RFID or biometric-locked handgun case.
By focusing on creating an experience that provides real lifestyle value for the end user, these manufacturers are producing products that connect seamlessly, work in the background, and provide their users with valuable data and services that create ease, promote health, and improve safety. Their networking choices underlie all of these success points. Choose wisely when that choice is yours.