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Posts: 3
Registered: ‎07-04-2014

Internet of Things: Doing it Right

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Everyone has predicted great future for IoT for years. Still, it has not really come yet, and it's not clear why. IoT is technically possible today already. The future promisses millions of tiny interconnected devices all around us, helping with all kinds of things. It's "just" a matter of making it happen for real.

Now, I do believe in the future of IoT, but I think many people are doing it wrong. Especially many big companies. They would like to add IoT to their portfolio as yet another product line and start making money on it. Sure, it is possible to go that route, it can probably even be profitable, but it can never exploit the full potential of IoT.

The real power is in hacking. Hacking? Well, IoT today is like software in the 1970s. There were no office suites back then. Most programs of that era served a single purpose for a single customer. Companies wrote their own programs for data processing. If they did not want to hire their own programmer, they asked another specialized company. In fact, this is how first software companies came into being.

How is this similar to IoT? Today, truly useful IoT applications usually serve a single purpose for a single customer. Maybe for a few customers. But definitely not enough to allow large-scale manufacturing. This must be very disappointing for big companies, but it is an opportunity for a brand new market! Big companies can take a fair share now, if they understand the rules. The software boom in the 1980s was enabled by advances in the infrastructure. Programmers no longer had to care about all the gory details. They could write in high-level programming languages rather than punch hand-compiled machine code. Programs no longer ran on bare metal, but could use interfaces provided by the operating system. This made a lot things much easier, for example talking to peripherals.

In 1990s scripting languages allowed non-programmers to automate many tasks, liberating them from the need to pay for the development of a specialized program. The success of Unix was not in its perfect design, but rather in its philosophy: provide a good set of basic building blocks that can be combined in many creative ways by anyone without having to understand how they are implemented.

The IoT is in a similar position now. There are standard solutions to many difficult challenges of the past, lowering the bar as much as to allow non-engineers to join. Much of the development is done by enthusiasts who combine the building blocks of IoT to create their specialized IoT gadgets. I believe this is the right approach. I do not expect a plethora of universally useful IoT gadgets; not now, at least. Companies should experiment and build their own IoT gadgets to meet their specific needs. Even individual enthusiasts should make their IoT for their homes, gardens, etc.

Big companies can help by making the building blocks easier to use, more versatile, and above all easier to ombine. Silicon Labs is doing a great job here on many levels, ranging from flexible RF modules (e.g. Complete Wireless M-Bus Solution for European Market), through all kinds of smart interface ICs, which help you connect with existing systems, to easy cross-platform development with Simplicity Studio and a wide range of online courses.

Keep up the good work, guys!

Posts: 428
Registered: ‎01-18-2004

Re: Internet of Things: Doing it Right

The IoT is interesting in concept, but in too many applications it's hamstrung by a stupid implementation.

 

Case in point. I like the idea of home automation for certain things. I have a pair of nice powered (built-in-amplifier) studio monitors for mixing music on the computer. Because of how I have everything arranged, the speakers' power switches (in the back) aren't accessible, and I like to turn them off when not in use because why waste the power? Also in that room is one of those outdoor transformers for low-voltage lights. That transformer is up on top of a shelf, feeding a parallel run of wire rope, from which a few 12VAC halogen lamps hang via alligator clips. The power switch for that transformer is also out of reach.

 

For a long time, I used X-10 appliance modules to turn these things off and on. The only problem is that X-10 modules really suck and tend to fail. So I looked for a replacement, and I found something called a Quirky Power Pivot Genius, which has two Wi-Fi controlled outlets for $50. Given that a lot of the other WiFi/Zigbee/whatever switch modules are $50 for one switched outlets, two switched outlets for that price is a good deal. So I got one.

 

It uses the GE "Wink" control app/system. Forgetting for the moment that its configuration process is kinda stupid, the height of idiocy is this: you control the switches using a smartphone app (why no host computer program?), which doesn't talk to the switch directly, but rather it talks to Wink's cloud server thing, which then talks to the switch. Which is ridiculous for a whole lot of really obvious reasons.

 

And Wink isn't the only IoT service that works this way. Most of them do, because they want to offer the "convenience" of the customer having access to their home stuff from anywhere in the world. 

 

So until the home automation/IoT providers figure out a way to make this stuff work without having the stuff phone home, it'll remain a niche.