The consumer IoT standards wars

On the same day during the second week in November both Bluetooth and Thread announced major updates and roadmaps for their respective network layer protocols. It’s unclear whether it was a mere coincidence, but what isn’t hard to believe is just how much the battle to become the dominant communications protocol in consumer IoT is drawing in every big IT player from Apple to Samsung to ARM.
To review, what’s going on here is that there are a number of competing protocols in consumer IoT. Bluetooth and Thread are just two. There’s also Apple’s HomeKit, which is really a made for iOS certification program, as well as Google’s newly announced Weave, IoTivity (backed by Intel) and the open source AllJoyn.
The protocols differ on many levels. Some of the differentiators include reported power characteristics, whether they enable true mesh networking, proprietary vs. open source, and IP requirements intrinsic to the alliances they’ve formed.
It’s obvious that not all will survive, though what may be less obvious to those backing each protocol is that the proliferation of certification programs and competing protocols will actually bring folks further away from the dreamed goal for the smarthome: true device to device interoperability that’s easy to enable. At least that’s true in the short term. If a dominant networking protocol emerges in the home, as WiFi did a decade ago, that protocol could really create a stable networking protocol that helps the overall market.
In terms of the news at hand, Bluetooth’s announcements were the most compelling. Their 2016 tech roadmap includes a 4 times longer range, mesh networking and double the speed without increasing power draw.
I’ve been slowly following the Bluetooth renaissance ever since the introduction of Bluetooth 4.0, also known as Bluetooth Low Energy. Bluetooth LE solved a lot of the annoying pairing issues and power problems associated with previous versions of Bluetooth. And for those reasons I saw it popping up in a lot of novel but compelling consumer IoT products like connected bike locks, where easy syncing with a smartphone was needed.
In terms of the smart home, Bluetooth always had problems because it’s range has been limited and it’s not a mesh network, two requirements for a really robust smart home where data can seamlessly pass throughout the entire home. But that could all change in the future and the fact that Bluetooth chips are cheap and they are on everyone’s smart phone translates into a very large install base.
Thread’s announcement heralded the opening of its program for device certification, in the same vein as Apple’s HomeKit certification. Over 30 products and components have now been submitted to the consortium, which includes Samsung, Nest, Freescale, Silicon Labs, Qualcomm and others.
The Thread protocol runs atop 6LoWPAN (IPv6 over Low-power Wireless Personal Area Networks), and can work with existing 802.15.4 hardware wireless devices with a software update. 802.15.4 is the basis for ZigBee. One of the major reported advantages of Thread is that it’s mesh network works well and that it’s self healing. Imagine a home with 10 or 20 Thread enabled devices. If the battery dies on one, another communications point could be quickly found so that the flow of data continues. It’s fair to say that in terms of developing and focusing on a mesh networking capability, Thread has been ahead of the competition and has truly been a protocol designed for consumer IoT.
What’s at stake for all of these players exists on two levels. On one level they want to preserve their position in the market. Freescale, for example, already offers a pre-certified software stack for Thread and is expecting full certification for its microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors and communications options in the near future. If Thread gains traction, companies like Freescale want to be the go to vendors for pre certified components.
But the second layer of what’s at stake relates to the value of the overall market. In Bluetooth’s press release Bluetooth’s Toby Nixon made sure to reiterate that the IoT market potential could run as high as 11.1 trillion. I’ve honestly never seen a projection that high, despite the huge buzz around IoT, but there’s a different consideration here.
If that very large market is ever to materialize, a secure, mesh networked, large install base protocol will need to emerge. Much of the value of consumer IoT in places like the smart home revolves around consumers having positive experiences with products that work well with other smart home products. Point application products, be they a thermostat or a smart lock, have incrementally more value in the market if they play well with other smart home devices.
The first wave of successful smart home products have been point application products like the Sonos wireless speakers or the Nest thermostat. But the the future of the smart home will have to be bigger than that. It’ll have to be about a context aware, integrated experience where developers are given the power to figure out creative applications that leverage the hardware resources across multiple home devices and multiple sensor systems.
I don’t believe that we currently actually even understand the full potential of the smart home because we haven’t given developers a means to build apps atop all of the hardware in a home. And the sooner we settle on a robust protocol, the quicker we’ll get to that smart home vision.

The AllSeen Alliance changes its IP stance after Iotivity launch

After getting hammered on its intellectual property rights by Intel’s competing Iotivity standards effort, the AllSeen Alliance, which is promoting Qualcomm-backed AllJoyn protocol, is offering users a patent pledge. Essentially anyone who gets certified with the AllSeen Alliance logo also gets a pledge that none of the members of the alliance will sue for use of their technology.

Philip DesAutels, senior director of IoT at the Linux Foundation, which hosts the AllSeen Alliance, says that the 15 members of the Alliance had been working on this since last August, but it took time to get all 15 members to agree. They’ve agreed on the patent pledge, which means that those service, app or devices makers who get certified won’t get sued for patent infringement by member companies, and they will get to go through certification and to use the Designed for AllSeen logo without paying any licensing or membership fee.

To enforce this, if a member company decides to sue for infringement, all the other AllSeen member companies will defend the certified device, app or service maker against the suit-happy AllSeen Alliance member. It’s a bit different from the Open Interconnect Consortium’s Iotivity IP deal, which lets members license the protocol for free. But the OIC has been pushing that different program pretty hard, especially after it lost Broadcom, one of its founding members, after a dispute over intellectual property terms.

Yes, all of this is very much in the weeds, but these two organizations are fighting to establish a standard way for devices to communicate what they are and what they can do within a home network. Whichever one succeeds will be building what each hopes could become the equivalent of HTTP for the internet of things in the home.

And while each standards effort is led by a rival chip company DesAutels says they aren’t that far apart from a technical perspective. “There’s no technical reason we can’t come together right now,” he said. “I mean, there are things like OIC supports CoAP and AllJoyn can run over CoAP. There’s no reason it can’t, it’s just no one has done it. People don’t want a hodge-podge of stuff. They want one application to control their devices and we have to give them that.”

As for this patent pledge, it will take effect 90 days after being announced on Thursday, which means devices shipping with the AllSeen certification after April 29 will be protected.

Intel’s OIC unveils the IoTivity standard for device discovery

After launching last July with a press release and promises of taking on the problem of device-to-device communication and discovery, the Open Interconnect Consortium has launched the initial version of its internet of things certification and standard. Called IoTivity, the technology will act as a way for connected devices to share what they are and what they can do.

So any light bulb that runs the IoTivity code will be able to tell any television or washing machine running the IotTivity code that it is a light bulb and it can turn on and off, dim and perhaps change colors. Armed with this knowledge the washing machine might send notifications about loads being ready to go into the dryer to a bulb by forcing it to blink. The TV might use the IoTivity information to dim the lights when it turns on.

The plan is for IoTivity to sit between the radios such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and the higher level apps the device uses. It’s middleware that aims to make things run smoothly without a lot of user or programmer intervention. The biggest rival to IoTivity is AllJoyn, the Qualcomm proposed protocol that is overseen by the AllSeen Alliance. Both standards have similar goals and similar technological approaches to those goals in terms of building out a middleware layer between the radios and the application.

Both even sling the word “open” around a fair bit and have organizations under the Linux Foundation. The difference is how the two are handling the IP and potential standards. In fact, Broadcom left the OIC over an issue on how it handles IP rights late last year.

The issue appeared to be over how the OIC called for companies to license the technology contributed to the group. It uses a provision that requires participating companies to offer a zero-rate reasonable and non-discriminatory license to their code for member organizations, according to an OIC a spokesman at the time. The AllSeen Alliance does not. In fact, at a press conference at CES, Qualcomm President Derek Aberle confirmed that while AllJoyn is open source, Qualcomm hopes to make money licensing technologies built on top of it such as the media streaming tech AllPlay.

Mark Skarpness, chair of the IoTivity Steering Group, says that IoTivity should become a finalized standard and certification by the middle of the year. The standard is what will be implemented on the devices, while the certification will be what is tested and then advertised as proving that two IoTivity-labeled devices work together. We should see devices that implement the standard and are certified by the second half of the year he said.

There are already devices in the market that use AllJoyn, but plenty of companies are waiting to see what the OIC had been working on. Others are happy to implement both if they have to. All end users will care about is that their myriad connected devices will “just work.”

Like those Philips lighting tracks for TV shows? They take time

Philips and the SyFy channel teamed up again to produce a lighting track for a television show — this time a season of 12 Monkeys — announced at International CES. After experiencing the lighting track for Sharknado, I was keen to see the 12 Monkeys effect. Sadly, I was sick with the flu, so my in-person demo turned into a phone call, but I will make sure I get a chance to watch the show to see the effects tuned to the four Hue lights in my living room

Since I think this sort of immersive entertainment experience is a great use case for splurging on what are admittedly some expensive light bulbs ($60 a pop), and the overall experience is so neat, I’d love to see more movies and shows build lighting tracks to go with their stories.

The lighting tracks sync lighting effects or add mood to the corresponding TV shows. It can be cool like mimicking lighting during a storm or add tension by adding creepy green undertones to a grim scene. Such a track might not add much to The Good Wife, but it would be awesome for Lost or even a show like True Detective.

But in a conversation with the Philips team I found out that creating a lighting track right now takes about 10 to 12 times the length of the show you’re mapping the lights to. So a 40-minute episode of 12 Monkeys takes someone about 8 hours to “score” with lights, according to George Yianni, the Philips Hue creator and architect. Yianni said the person designing the lighting uses an extension of the Philips Hue app added as a plug-in to a program called Watchwith already in use by studios to provide interactive experiences.

Philips is also showing off a similar immersive experience as part of gaming with a game called Chariots, where code to control the Philips Hue lights is written into the game to help indicate things like in-game bonuses, but also add to the immersive experience. Again, this is an awesome idea, although it is similar to an example I heard earlier in the week from Qualcomm as part of its AllJoyn lighting discussion.

As part of Microsoft joining the AllSeen Alliance that promotes the AllJoyn protocol and the smart lighting standard, one of the ideas is to make smart light bulbs react to Xbox and console games in a similar fashion — perhaps not covering the “designed” aspects as much, but flashing red if a player dies or blue if he gets a health boost. In the AllSeen example, though, using the standard would work across any bulbs that implement the code, as opposed to just the Philips Hue bulbs.

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Sony commits to the AllSeen Alliance as did Electrolux

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The AllSeen Alliance is like train that is picking up steam as it signs Sony as a member on Tuesday after last week announcing top appliance maker Electrolux. The Alliance, which is promoting the AllJoyn notification standard for the internet of things, now has enough big names to act as a credible option for a smart home standard. Developers I’ve talked to say the AllJoyn protocol is easy to implement, but it’s not in enough devices yet to see how it is working at a practical level. For more on AllSeen, check out the podcast with chairwoman Liat Ben-Zur,

AllSeen Alliance nabs Bosch and Revolv as members

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The steady drip of new members to the AllSeen Alliance continues. Industrial sensor and consumer appliance maker Bosch, Cloud of Things, home hub maker Revolv and building management service Shaspa have joined the effort to promote the open source AllJoyn protocol as a standard for the internet of things. Adding Bosch is significant because it brings another large appliance brand to existing members LG, Sears and Panasonic, and the addition of Revolv is also interesting since the common thinking is a protocol like AllJoyn might one day replace hubs. For more on the Alliance, check out the recent podcast I did with Liat Ben-Zur, the head of the Alliance.