Lack of Interoperability in The IoT Space: The Need to Speak a Common Language
The Internet of Things is a fragmented market. There are hundreds, if not thousands of different companies creating and selling connected devices, products and services. The nascent industry is huge. New solutions are launched every day, either as standalone devices or as whole ecosystems of products which work under one of the many communication protocols available in the market, sometimes not being able to speak to each other. Although this is an understandable situation, given that the market is still in its early stages and has a long way to go before things begin to settle down, it is also true that the lack of standardization is one of the main issues that are currently hindering massive consumer uptake of IoT technologies.
For end users, this absence of one common protocol translates into a wide array of problems: devices that won’t work together seamlessly, difficulty in setting up an ecosystem of products without technical assistance, confusion about brands and options and a general distrust and sense of uncertainty towards smart devices. Technical support issues are perhaps the best to illustrate the problem: if an end user is trying to integrate different devices on different platforms and protocols, what happens when they are not successful? When their Nest doesn’t work with their Hue or IFTTT, who do they call? Nest? Hue? Their cellular provider? Internet provider? Who is the focal point of these issues? Who is in charge there?
The lack of interoperability, which occurs in many different levels —from communication protocols to cloud services to hardware versions—, is a challenge that must be overcome in order to reach the industry’s full potential. In fact, a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report indicated that “interoperability is required to unlock more than $4 trillion per year in potential economic impact for IoT use in 2025”.
The problem with standardization is that everybody wants to be the one to lead the movement, which contributes both to consumers’ confusion and market fragmentation. Technology giants such as Google, Apple or Amazon, for example, even though they aim to bring together all the other point IoT devices through open APIs that any developer can access, they also want their own device to become the platform’s central management point. This is understandable, since their goal is to attract the largest market share to their own products and solutions. However, as we have previously discussed in this blog, the giants tend to offer individual devices that cover this or that specific need, instead of comprehensive connected living solutions. They are not the only ones: many IoT companies market solutions and devices that perform a single function and are sold as standalone units. But the full potential of these products lies precisely in their ability to connect to other devices from multiple vendors. They have the capability to become part of a greater ecosystem. They just need to speak a common language.
Open standard initiatives that help devices work with each other such as the Z-Wave Alliance, ZigBee or the newer Google Thread — whose aim is to bring together different protocols under a single roof so they can be interactive— bring together many manufacturers and brands. Other initiatives which operate on the consumer’s side, such as IFTTT, are also helping pave the way for an early interoperability among different brands and devices. We are well aware, however, that it is impossible to attain universal connectivity at every possible level.
Just like we have different OS that work independently, such as Windows, Apple OS and Android, there will always be room for different standards and communication protocols among connected devices. But if we manage to reduce them to a select few that are easily manageable, consumers will find it much easier to understand their options and make their choices accordingly, just like now some prefer Android, while others choose Apple. Some experts, such as Dave Mayne of Resolution Products think it doesn’t matter which protocol or protocols wins this battle. The industry will probably adopt the best and the most affordable one, so it will be fine either way.
We will probably see a certain market consolidation in which one or two of them will rise above the rest, signaling the way ahead for the rest to follow their lead. Until then, the best possible approach is to offer consumers platforms of devices that are both closed and, on the other hand, open: closed to work seamlessly together as an independent, fully-functional solution, but open to enable integrations with other IoT ecosystems, both in its communication protocols and over the cloud. A comprehensive solution that works on its own, but that is able to grow and expand over time. When offered by a single service provider, this will, in turn, provide a focal point for end-users when they come upon any support issues.
The thing is, it doesn’t really matter, as long as different products and solutions manage to speak to each other in a simple, easy and smooth way for end users. After all, consumers do not care about standards or communication protocols, they just want their devices to work.
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