Wireless Communications Alliance
I recently took part in a panel held by the Wireless Communications Alliance (WCA) to explore the question, “What do we mean by IoT?” The WCA has been meeting for more than 20 years to explore questions, technical and otherwise, related to wireless technologies. They attract a well-informed audience that is eager to engage in the discussion.
The need for open standards
The WCA’s long history provides an interesting perspective on IoT. The most successful wireless communications technologies have been built on standards and openness. Because wireless technology operates in a physically shared space, literally within the air we breath and the spaces we move, there is a strong incentive, even need, for open standards and industry-wide cooperation to ensure communications flow without interruption.
When WCA was founded in 1993, the Internet had already existed for some time, but was not widely known outside of academia. Now, the Internet has grown into its own global shared space. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has been built almost entirely on open standards carefully crafted by individuals, organizations, and companies. The Internet is a success because it has been built, and continues to grow, through open standards.
A “new” IoT movement
The Internet of Things is not as new as we would like to believe, either. The term was coined in 1999, and companies such as Echelon have been offering networked automation systems as far back as the early 90s. In the last couple of years, IoT has exploded as the next big wave, following the wave of mobile apps.
IoT promises to connect the many things in our world to the Internet so those things can communicate with us and each other, directly and through the cloud. If IoT fulfills that promise, it will simplify our lives, save us time and money, and give us greater insights into ourselves and our world. That’s a tall order.
IoT: evolving like the early web
To achieve even a fraction of its potential, the IoT will need to be built the same way the Internet was built. The billions of devices connecting to our Internet should evolve the way the Internet evolved.
Right now, that isn’t the case. Most devices are closed to any software written by their owners or third parties: only their manufacturer can change, or even know the true details of, its behavior. Most devices communicate on our Internet using closed protocols, making it difficult or impractical to achieve interoperability with arbitrary devices. The device owners are dependent on the manufacturers for everything, including permission to connect devices they purchased to other devices they own.
This situation isn’t so different from the early web. There was a time when websites only worked with one web browser. Those websites were often in a business relationship with the web browser creator. Users didn’t tolerate that nonsense for long, insisting that they should be able to use the web browser of their choice. Today, websites invite derision if they warn that they work best with only one particular browser.
Hope for the interoperable future
That gives us hope. Today, interoperability exists only in clusters of devices from an allied group of manufacturers. These islands of interoperability will merge. Customers can and will demand the interoperability implicitly promised in the words “Internet of Things.” And when customers demand change through their buying actions, the manufacturers of our favorite products will surely follow.
The user is in control
During the Q&A session at the end of the panel, one attendee posed an intriguing question. Reflecting on Asimov’s classic Three Laws of Robotics, he asked, “What would be the Three Laws for Internet of Things?” The question is insightful as many IoT devices are providing capabilities that are precursors to the kinds of robots Asimov envisioned. The first law that came to my mind is this: the user is always in control. There’s a corollary implicit in that simple law, that the user has all the information freely available to them to exercise that control wisely.
To realize that goal, we need to build the Internet of Things on the same open standards, and with the same collaborative processes, that have made our Internet and wireless communications so critical to the world today.