IoT Interoperability, SHABA etc.

It’s been that sort of a week.  We put in an EoI in the TSB call for an IoT Ecosystem Demonstrator.  We think it’s good but the competition will be strong and there will be very few winners.

The TSB call was of special interest because it covers the area of IoT interoperability.  Right now many IoT systems are being built and each is presumably complete in itself.  However, they are built with little or no reference to each other and do not interoperate.  We assert that this not good for the growth of the IoT market.

I also attended the launch of the Smart Home and Business Association SHABA.  This initiative, an evolution of  The Automated Home Initiative (TAHI) is setting itself up in a big way to make all the systems around the home and office interoperate.  There seems to be plenty of emphasis on Internet of Things i.e. sensors, actuators and processing.

Then, as if I hadn’t had enough for one day, I attended the London IoT meet up.  This featured the usual cast of characters.  For me, a relaxing affair, catching up on what some interesting people are currently up to.  Another nice wireless gateway, Blinkhub, and a talk on the Little Printer story that I certainly found interesting.  In conversations, it seemed that everyone had put in a TSB bid.

Back to IoT Interoperability.  We need a shorter name for this.

Those of us who have been involved with standards for a long time (but have tried to minimise the amount of time we have spent in dark, smoke-filled rooms) still believe ourselves to be surprisingly sane.  We’ve also learned a thing or two about where successful, *practical* standards come from.

In a nutshell, the standards that count are the ones manifested in quality products you can actually buy.  Take TCP/IP, probably my favourite standard.  A large number of products implement this standard and they interoperate.  How did this happen?  How can we “clone” this kind of standards success story in IoT?

If we go back a few years, numerous implementations of TCP/IP existed and they were more or less interoperable.  The standard was well documented and testing and certification processes came into existence.  Wonderful as these standards, test systems and certification processes were, these did not guarantee success.  The phenomenon that made the real difference was procurement, particularly large-scale public procurements by the likes of the US Department of Defense.

In these procurements, standards compliance was mandatory and it had to be proven.  This created the business case for the otherwise expensive luxury of provable standards conformance.  The rest is history.  When we go to our computer store to buy a laptop or a router we are standing on the shoulders of the giants to procurement.

It may not be possible any time soon to bring this level of support for interoperability standards in the IoT world.  After all, it would not be reasonable to procure against a nascent standard.  However, if we want to shorten the cycle from innovation to interoperability, standards making needs from the outset to involve:

  • real use cases backed by buying power
  • real products from suppliers who are prepared to invest in compliance testing and certification
  • real applications that bridge the use cases to the products

In this sense the plans laid out by SHABA are cogent and promising.  The question is:  who is going to participate?  SHABA would be well-advised to recruit a balanced constituency comprising the above kinds of player and I believe they appreciate that.  My concern is that I’m not sure that any business case for participation will be forthcoming.

So what is a possible business model for IoT standardisation leading to interoperability?  Looking back at how servers became standardised in the early 90s, we saw Microsoft going alone and all the others lining up behind POSIX.  The first stage was the endeavour by Bull, ICL, Siemens, Olivetti and Nixorf followed quite quickly by Sun, DEC, IBM and the rest joining in.  This was later cemented by testing, certification and major procurements.  The interesting part of this is the first stage business case: 2nd rank players worked together to help them take on the 1st rank players.

Will history repeat itself or are we condemned to indefinite IoT chaos?