Some time ago, I wrote an article entitled, “What is the Internet of Things?” It sought to help put the Internet of Things (IoT) into perspective and helped describe a dream about what the IoT could eventually become. Technologies always mature and people’s feelings toward them change. In addition, the reality of the Internet of Things begins to set in. The vaporware and promises of yesterday fade in the face of what the technology can actually do and how people actually expect to use it. Many people are saying that the IoT is losing steam, but that’s not really the case. The IoT is maturing and becoming a more useful technology space that developers can actually employ to create some really compelling digital experiences. This article looks at the IoT through the lens of reality to state what the IoT isn’t, which means that you discover what it really is all about.
Avoiding the Hype Products
Some companies see IoT as a means for making all of us excessively lazy and they’re willing to provide the products to help us go there. Some people consider Amazon’s Dash Button as one such device. The idea is to stick it to something in your laundryroom, such as the washing machine, and you push it every time you’re out of detergent. While some people were drooling over the device, some industry pundits saw it for what it was—ludicrous. Of course, Amazon wants to get everyone to participate, so there is the Dash Replenishment Service and Amazon is inviting developers to join. That’s right! You can access an API that makes it possible to create your own Dash Button. The API is still in development, but you can get in on the ground floor with the beta. (Another interesting product in this genre is the Egg Minder—an IoT device designed to tell you how many eggs you have left in the refrigerator.)
Of course, the question is where real products will come into play. What vendors need to consider with IoT is how to create products people actually need. For example, people really do need to monitor various environmental conditions, including things like freezer temperatures. Companies, such as Monnit, provide devices to perform all sorts of monitoring using IoT devices. The iMonnit API makes it possible for developers to write applications to interact with these devices so that it’s possible to use the sensors in unique ways. (Just in case you need that solution for a home environment, try SmartHome instead.) The point is that this is the promise of IoT that hype products tend to miss.
Connecting Diverse Products
Some people have gotten the idea that IoT is all about connecting disparate devices together in some manner—that somehow it will be possible to use a single app to control every aspect of a home, business, or industrial setting. The IoT isn’t an actual networking solution today. In fact, like most new technologies, the IoT suffers from a serious amount of proprietary solutions. When working with IoT devices, you need to consider issues such as:
- Hubs: Each vendor seems to use a proprietary hub so that you need one hub for each product type. Some vendors don’t use hubs. Getting products that avoid the whole hub mess is the best way to go.
- Subscriptions: If you work through a cable service or telephone company, you’ll almost certainly end up having a subscription to a service that makes your device accessible. Some other vendors go this route too. Unless the product has something special to offer, having to pay a monthly subscription fee to access the hardware you bought seems like a bad idea.
- Headless Devices: Some devices don’t offer any sort of control system, other than a smartphone or other computing device. What this means is that you actually need another device to control the device you wanted to interact with in the first place. In general, avoid headless devices when you can. You shouldn’t need a smartphone to control the temperature of a building.
- Differing Protocols: Various vendors use different protocols. One vendor might rely on Bluetooth, while another relies on ZigBee. Obtaining devices that all use the same protocol is the best way to ensure you have at least a chance of controlling the devices using the same approach.
Fortunately, some vendors, such as Cisco, recognize that connectivity is important. However, even though Cisco has been working on these solutions since 2013 , a perfect solution still remains to be seen. The Cisco IoT Field Network Director does offer the promise of consolidation, however, because it extends the network out to the device. This technology makes it possible to manage your devices using a single application. The concept is extended further by using a technique called fog computing, where the cloud is extended to the edge of the network.
The point is that IoT will eventually become more standardized and devices will become plug-and-play in nature, but you can’t count on it today. What you need to look at is one IoT device connected to a single application. When possible, try to get all your devices from a single vendor who also provides an API so you can create applications to interact with the devices as needed.
Securing the IoT Solutions
You can find a number of stories that describe some of the horrors of using IoT devices in just about any environment. For example, a review of Honeywell’s smart thermostat system tells precisely what a disgruntled husband can do to his ex-wife. (Whether the story is real or not is the topic of much speculation, but it’s completely feasible. You can check out other stories of this sort at http://www.infoworld.com/article/2930366/internet-of-things/welcome-to-the-smart-home-of-horror.html). Currently, the IoT environment is anything but safe. If you want a secure environment, then you need to keep off the Internet or rely on secure Internet solutions.
Groups like the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) are trying to educate vendors and developers alike on safe coding practices for IoT, but even with a concise top ten list of things everyone should check, security is still an issue for IoT. However, security will improve. Companies, such as Nest, are making security a prime focus and telling potential customers about the efforts being made on their behalf.
The Bottom Line
The IoT is a new industry of technology that provides non-standard solutions to myriad problems. Some solutions are quite usable; others aren’t worth the time needed to seriously consider them. You won’t get a completely secure, standardized solution to meet most needs today unless you take the time to perform the required research and shop carefully from a single vendor. However, there are changes in the wind and eventually IoT will become the standardized environment we all wanted in the first place. For now, you need to think about whether that Egg Minder really is the device of your dreams.