Is a multiplicity of standards holding back the development of the IoT?

4 mins read

As technology companies look to capitalise on the Internet of Things, could the emergence of various de facto IoT standards be holding the market back?

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it was possible to see real progress being made in the development of the Internet of Things. The market has moved from simply connecting people to connecting people and locations to now connecting everything.

For the electronics industry, the IoT – or the Internet of Everything – has fast become the most disruptive technological revolution since the creation of the worldwide web.

The IoT has influenced the industrial market for some time, but while M2M has been present, it hasn't been able to provide the 'smart' approach that IoT can. Simply put, it goes way beyond controlling and monitoring; the IoT has the potential to transform business and create all manner of new business models.

ARM's Zach Shelby, vice president of marketing for the IoT, sees it as 'an evolution of the embedded market as traditional closed, isolated devices connect to the outside world and to the cloud'. "This is a fundamental shift that will affect almost every ecosystem and economy, and will evolve over a number of years. Evidence of this evolution can be seen in the wearable trend, integrated MCU and connectivity platforms and the diversity of end devices."

Many analysts see 2014 as the year the market turned, with major retailers clearing shelf space to add products for the connected home. Intelligent thermostats and smoke detectors are now being viewed as 'everyday' devices in many homes.

As the IoT grows, so will the number of applications being developed to control devices and objects and the amount of data that will be generated will require industry collaboration across all sectors in order to better control and make sense of it. Scale will bring with it the need for standards that, in turn, will require more collaboration and sharing. In turn, this will need greater trust and security. Interoperability is at the heart of any development in terms of cross-industry standards.

Most commentators agree the IoT needs standards in place so that it doesn't become just another sector dominated by large technology companies, locking customers into a proprietary standard, or a silo, which would simply limit opportunities for growth.

So how will standards and regulation affect the connected world?

"Standards are a big topic and it's a case of not always having to reinvent things that exist today. There are already many open standards out there being used for IoT," explains Alexander Damisch, senior director, IoT solutions at Wind River. "Take OSGI, MQTT, lightweight M2M, XMPP and, for more embedded time sensitive applications, IEEE802.1.

"Almost all of these are already interoperable, when viewed from the IP network perspective – take the transport layer of the OSI model, which is used for IEEE802.1 standard, but accommodates other communications standards on top. There is only a small challenge to integrate these standards together to interoperate."

Skip Ashton, vice president of software engineering at Silicon Labs, agrees, up to a point. "Many vendors and suppliers are in the market today with products using available standards. This is a normal evolution of the market and helps to decide which standards are working, which are not and where additional effort is needed."

However he adds: "Explosive growth will not occur without agreement on standards."

Companies looking to enter the IoT market will not be able to provide the connected device with every possible integration point to the outside world and, as a result, there is certainly a focus on integral, open standards that look to reduce the barriers to adoption for sensor solutions, such as WiFi, 6LoWPAN, Bluetooth Smart, CoAP, HTTP and LWM2M.

Companies like Intel and ARM are working with different bodies including: the Thread Group; HyperCat; the Industrial Internet Consortium; and the Open Interconnect Consortium to establish new standards and promote greater interoperability.

"Standardisation for base technologies has been completed and these are being widely embraced for IoT," says Shelby. "The trend for additional industry alliances is a natural development in disruptive eras. We believe these alliances will coalesce over time, allowing the IoT to reach its full potential."

Intel's Rob Sheppard, IoT product and solutions marketing manager,agrees and makes the point that, while it's typical of a nascent market to see multiple standards evolve: "Even multiple standards are better than thousands of proprietary systems."

But will multiple competing standards help, or end up hindering, the market's development?

In the past, manufacturers have developed proprietary standards lacking any form of interoperability. However, business leaders today recognise that interoperability is the key requirement in order to encourage fast market adoption.

"Standards exist to address many levels of the IoT – from network protocols to data models to application layers," says Shelby. "There are parts of the stack, like wireless networking, where standardisation makes a significant amount of sense. In other parts, like application logic, different actors may want to build value though."

According to Ashton: "To allow common consumer usage of devices, a common set of standards will need to be adopted. These standards will be used across different physical layers to account for the different needs of devices, with a common application layer allowing devices to connect to each other and share information.

"However, there will continue to be devices that are standalone (but connected), or that do not share their application data with other devices, only with the user."

While international standards bodies are working to create specific IoT standards, technology firms are keen to capitalise on the growing interest in applications and devices for the market. As a result, numerous company groupings have appeared over the past year, leading to the emergence of various de facto IoT standards.

International standards bodies, like the IETF and IEEE, have completed most of the basic standards building blocks needed for IoT. Many of the industry groups that have been set up, according to Shelby, are trying to 'tie together and promote sets of building blocks useful for their particular focus – industrial, automotive, building control'.

He warns that, while diversity is a good thing, it must add value.

Interoperability is crucial if the IoT is to work and newly emerging industry bodies, alongside more established ones, are very active in selecting and recommending interoperability standards.

Meanwhile, further standards bodies are expected to appear, raising the question of whether there are 'too many cooks'?

Could the rise of multiple standards and standards bodies, despite their best intentions, result in a confused and fragmented market?