Connecting Things to the Internet Does Not an Internet of Things Make

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The Internet of Things has continued to emerge as a trend this year within the consumer electronics sector. Everyone’s trying to get into the game, with connected devices now ranging from dog collars to toasters to sneakers, all getting connected to “the cloud.”

This is an exciting trend for consumer electronics in general, but we as an industry need to take a step back and realize that true connectivity extends beyond just the cloud.

Just because something is connected to the Internet, doesn’t mean it’s truly part of an Internet of Things (or as we like to call it at Qualcomm, the “Internet of Everything”). What’s unique about the Internet is its openness — the ability for one website to link to any other and leverage information in novel ways. Remember when the word “mashup” was all the rage in Web talk? Why was that? Because you just could. You could have one website leverage data and APIs from another website and mash that up to deliver a completely new, cool Web service, a la LivePlasma.com, Pageflakes.com, HousingMaps.com, etc.

So what’s the problem? Aren’t all these hot new connected IoT devices connected up to the cloud? Well, that’s the problem. We are oversimplifying the landscape. Each specific device seems to connect to its particular cloud service. There isn’t really one cloud. Every manufacturer has their own cloud service, and often these clouds are closed, proprietary environments. Devices that live in their own siloed cloud cannot speak to one another, meaning they cannot benefit from the data, context or control of nearby IoT devices. That is why we currently need a separate app to control — and interface with — each connected thing we buy. This may be acceptable in the near term, but it cannot scale.

And therein lies the rub. The Internet of Everything should be the realization of devices becoming smarter from sharing context and information from one another. It should bring continuous computing to fruition, whereby information that matters to you can follow you regardless of the physical devices available. The Internet of Everything should enable a step function in UI design as nearby devices, appliances, sensors and intelligent software replace the need for human input. Smart application developers have already started using this type of real world physical input to automatically fill in information so that end users don’t have to (think GPS). Now imagine when the intelligence and sensing can start to come from beyond the phone itself — when information from your appliances, car or your garage door opener can provide this “contextual intelligence.”

To be fair, the Internet of Everything is not just about collecting data from other devices. It’s also about sharing control across devices. Today, most people think this simply means controlling a refrigerator or lights from a smartphone app. But that is just the beginning. Imagine if simple, low-cost devices like toasters can dynamically discover nearby devices that have advanced UIs (such as smartphones, TVs, computers and tablets). Suddenly, cheap appliances can offer beautiful, sophisticated interfaces. There is also a trend toward the ability to shift control from one device to another as you move through your day. Why can’t my SMS messages follow me around different screens in my home, even when my mobile phone is quietly tucked away in my purse?

And while we’re at it, let’s discuss the importance of connectivity itself in an Internet of Everything world. There is no denying that everything is getting connected. Whether it’s via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, ZWave, Ethernet, Powerline or 3G, it’s happening. But regardless of the underlying connectivity technology, ideally all of these devices should be able to discover, connect and talk to one another. The idea of each device connecting only to its own cloud service is worrisome. What happens if that particular cloud service goes down? What happens if external access to the Internet goes down? Does that mean that these smart devices lose all of their “smarts”? What about privacy? What if I want some devices to keep the data they collect locally on my personal network and not share it externally on the Internet? For example, do I really want my door locks or garage door opener to track every time I come in and out of my home and then send that up to “the cloud?”

These are the complexities often overlooked in many of the initial IoT devices today. But these complexities must and will be addressed, as the Internet of Everything scales and evolves.

Indeed, this vision requires openness and flexibility. It requires the ability to work across heterogeneous networks and heterogeneous devices. It requires the ability for devices to function and add value even when there is no Internet connectivity. The good news is that this future is not far away. And I can’t wait. Because frankly, with every year that goes by, I can use smarter things around me to make up for the intelligence I seem to be losing.

Liat Ben-Zur is a senior director of product management at Qualcomm. She can be found on Twitter at @liatbenzur.


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