Smart Technology Series: Episode 2: IoT Protocol Inflation

August 6, 2018 by · Comments Off on Smart Technology Series: Episode 2: IoT Protocol Inflation
Filed under: Business, Finances 

As with every new technology trend, there are always standards that compete with each other trying to solve the new problems encountered by the technology needs.  Back in 2010 when the mobile world was nascent, we had Mobile OS Inflation.  Clever technologies, as we pointed out in Episode 1, are no exception.  In fact one could argue that IoT has broken the record of protocol standards.  As Nordic recently posted on their Get Connected Blog: “from ANT to Zigbee”.

The challenge with “things” is that they have very different needs that will drive different connectivity standards.  Wireless standards are typically designed to optimize battery life while maximizing performance for the specific application they are designed for.  They key performance attributes that IoT devices are typically concerned about are:  range, data rates, frequency of data transfers, latency, security, and reliability.  The “goldilocks” of these requirements are clearly different for different applications.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • A self-driving car will need long range, high and frequent data rates with low latency but it benefits from large power source. The network needs to be secure and very reliable.
  • A remote thermometer will need long range but low rates and infrequent data transmissions. High latency is acceptable, but battery availability may be limited.
  • A beacon will need to be really small, thus driving a very limited battery capacity, but its data needs are also limited. Depending on the application, the range needs can also be short.
  • A switch needs very low latency, but very infrequent and low data rates, while power is not an issue since they benefit from being hardwired.

These examples make the point that one wireless standard will not be sufficient for optimal operation of all of them.  So the need for various protocols is real.

Ant+, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-wave are very similar in nature but do differ in terms of performance attributes.  Ant+ (owned by Garmin) has been primarily focused on fitness devices like heart rate monitors, cycle computers, etc.  Bluetooth is perhaps the most ubiquitous.  It is present in every smartphone, tablet, and computer originally as a low range low data rate communications protocol. However, recently with the additions of BLE and Bluetooth 3, it is expanding into many more IoT use cases than it was before.  Zigbee is arguably the IIoT (industrial IoT) protocol of choice.  It has been available before IoT was even a thing (no pun intended).  It is a very mature protocol.  Extensions like Zigbee Pro and Zigbee Remote Control give it flexibility with reliability, security, and scalability for very complex systems.  Z-Wave, relatively new to the party, is a very low latency and low data rate protocol that supports meshing, making it ideal for home automation projects that include lights, valves, sensors, and the like, where nearly instantaneous action is expected.

WiFi, of course is everywhere and growing.  Newer variants can support rates up to 1 Gbps.  Chipsets are very power efficient, scalable, and extremely cost effective these days.  It is mostly a communications network protocol, but due to its omnipresence, there are a lot of IoT devices out there based solely on WiFi.

For long range needs there is also a growing collection of protocols for IoT applications like  Thread, Sigfox, Neul, or LoRaWAN.  There is a version of Cellular IoT that 5G technologies promise to make widely available.  It has high data rates and capacity with extremely low latency.

The big question is what technology to use for IoT projects. The truth is that it is not possible to settle on a single one even for a simple smart home project.  We have launched applications that combine several of these in order to have the best possible outcome.

It is unlikely that a single protocol will win the IoT battle.  We can expect extensions to some of the most common ones to make them more suitable for different use cases.  Some protocols may wind up relegated to niches and some may even vanish in the future.  However, we will have to live with protocol inflation given the diverse nature of IoT needs.  Successful installations will focus on the right choice of devices and protocols optimized for each part of the project rather than a choice of standards to make it easier for the installer.  Remember, it is about the best performance of the application, not about technology choices.



Smart Technology Series: Episode 1: Is it Smart or Clever?

July 24, 2018 by · Comments Off on Smart Technology Series: Episode 1: Is it Smart or Clever?
Filed under: Business, Technology 

Prefixing everyday things with the adjective “smart” seems like a good marketing practice.  But how truly smart are smart things?  There is no common baseline to call a thing smart.  Not that I am suggesting to regulate the term, the way organic foods are.  Creating a committee of smart people to regulate what smart is, does not seem smart at all.  But it does leave things too open for the average consumer and technologist to figure out.

A few years back, I tried (unsuccessfully, I might add) to coin the phrase “clever phone”.  Are you old enough to remember the Palm Pre and the Microsoft Kin? Calling a device “clever” rather than “smart” makes sense:  Not a simple device, but one that can do a few more things than a traditional device but not quite as smart as an iPhone or Android.   I think we are at a similar point now with the so called Smart things. Being clever means being skilled at doing or achieving something; being somewhat talented.  Whereas smart implies some intelligence, or the ability to do something independently for a positive outcome. In a sense, smart involves some decision making process whether it is natural or artificial.   It is in this bloggers opinion that most so called Smart Things now are just clever. 

Let’s start with Smart Lights:

If you get a “smart light”, like the Phillips Hue, you can do all sorts of fancy things with it.  You can change colors, dim the light, have it turn on with a specific trigger, etc …  but there is one fundamental flaw: the light switch has to be on.  If you are tired at night and just flicked the light off (as most of us do), that is it, all your smart programing goes out the window until you remember to flick the switch back on.  And if you just want your light to go on as you flick your switch, let’s say to look for something, you may not be able to, since the switch just provided power to the light so it can then apply the “smarts” you spent so much time programming.

How do you solve that, you might ask?  Well, the first attempt is to add the smarts to the switch so it controls a “dumb” light.  The problem with that approach is that your light will only turn on, off and maybe dim; no colors here…

So, IMHO, both the light and the switch are clever since they can do more than my traditional switch or light.  But neither is really smart per se.  The way I have worked around this is obviously by combining both:  a “clever” switch controlling a “clever” light.  That way, you can control when the light goes on and off as well as the color temperature and intensity of the light.  You can still flick it on and off as you do with a traditional light.

We can extend this idea to a bunch of other Smart Home things like speakers, appliances, locks, blinds, garage door openers, etc.  They are all limited, but do perform things that the traditional counterparts don’t.  However, the combination of things and good programming can make things smarter. But, installing, setting up, programing, and securing is not for the faint of heart.  The ecosystem of these “clever things” is a mess, a real mess.  There are hubs, protocols, devices, wireless standards, IFTTT, etc.  Just look at the list of supported devices in Google Home.  But that is a topic for a future post.

In essence, calling IoT “things” smart seems like a promise, rather than a reality.  In order to use them to create a true Smart Home, Smart Enterprise, Smart Healthspace, or Smart Buildings you will not only need to mix and match them, but you will need to program the smarts to make them unique.  So let’s just be candid, call the things clever and write spend the necessary time making these installations truly smart and unique.