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If We Build IoT, They Will Come. Right?

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Editor’s note: Jim Hunter is chief scientist and Nate Williams is the executive vice president of Emerging Business at Greenwave Systems. Williams is also an adviser for the Internet of Things Consortium.

It looks like this IoT trend is starting to catch on with the developer community. At least, that’s a conclusion one could draw from the reported results of a new Evans Data Corporation survey. Of the 1,400 developers who participated in this survey, 40 percent said they were either working on applications for connected devices for the Internet of Things (IoT) now or expect to begin work on applications within the next six months. 

Google’s purchase of Nest for $3.2 billion was a seminal moment for IoT. This event both validated the market and placed significant attention on IoT. Subsequent acquisitions of Dropcam (by Google), Axeda (by PTC), and SmartThings (by Samsung) continue to showcase the growing appeal of IoT. While we should be elated because Greenwave Systems fits squarely in the IoT space, we worry about the premature over-hyping of the promise of IoT.

We’re still in the early stages, and our industry has not had remotely enough collaboration to create a common open ecosystem that can integrate: 1) disparate devices and carrier networks; 2) communication protocols (including RFID, ZigBee, IEEE 802.15, 6LoWPAN, to name a few) and; 3) the pending volume of IoT applications developers tell us we will be on the market in the relatively near term.

All of this means that a flood of IoT applications will be coming online soon. While developers clearly have a rapidly accelerating interest in IoT, this does not guarantee the same enthusiasm from prospective consumers. There are some key challenges developers must consider with respect to gaining consumer confidence in a soon-to-be saturated market.

We’ve identified what we think are three key considerations to achieve consumer confidence in the IoT industry.

Reduce App Overload

While “there’s an app for that” seems like a great operating principle, imagine what it means when “there’s an app for that” and each specific IoT “thing” is made by different companies.

You can also look at it this way: What if to dial each person in your phone’s contact list you had to download and launch a different app? To call John, you had to find and launch the “John” app, and to call Mary, you had to find and launch the “Mary” app. Both apps have similar processes and outcomes, but require extra effort because you are forced to think “John” and “Mary” instead of “contact list.” Thankfully, most phone software comes with an integrated contact list, so that users get the best experience whether they’re dialing John or Mary — or anybody else in the book.

Developers can avoid this by considering the user experience. In a connected home, if consumers want to control lights, they most likely do not care about who made the light or how it communicates. They just want a simple and quick way to control their lights. The app maker can accomplish this through collaboration with cooperative vendors, some of whom have APIs to make the task less cumbersome.  By implementing an API, IoT vendors can make their own products available to other developers. The result is better apps that do more for the consumer — without getting in the way of the consumer experience.

For example, what if a home security camera were exposed to other smart home applications, such as lighting, motion sensors and thermostats? You could very easily create a personalized “coming home” experience that turns on your porch lights, adjusts your thermostats, and disarms your security systems upon verified approach.

Samsung and Apple are already onto the utility of such a connected user experience, addressing it via their respective Device Control and Apple HomeKit announcements.

Prevent Towers of Babel

One way to make sure your app and thing are interoperable is to use an industry standard language. While not all associations are proposing standards, many seek to improve the experience through collaboration:

  1. Industrial Internet Consortium: This group works to further the development, adoption, and widespread use of interconnected machines, intelligent analytics, and people at work.
  1. AllJoyn: This consortium provides a universal software framework and core set of system services that enable interoperability among connected products and software applications across manufacturers to create dynamic proximal networks.
  1. WebRTC: This organization exists to enable rich, high-quality, RTC (Real-Time Communications) applications to be developed in the browser via simple JavaScript APIs and HTML5.
  1. Z-Wave Alliance: This group’s goal is to bring advanced, yet practical, wireless products and services to market that work together seamlessly, regardless of brand or vendor for smart home and business applications.
  1. Zigbee Alliance: This association’s members represent businesses, universities and government agencies that work together to create wireless solutions for use in commercial, residential, energy, consumer and industrial sectors.
  1. Open Interconnect Consortium: This consortium’s goal is to define the connectivity requirements that will ensure interoperability across emerging IoT devices.
  1. Thread: This group guides the adoption of the Thread protocol. With Thread, product developers and consumers can easily and securely connect more than 250 devices into a low-power, wireless mesh network that also includes direct Internet and cloud access for every device.
  1. Internet of Things Consortium: This group’s mission is to drive adoption of IoT products ampersand services through curated networking, consumer research, and industry education. (Disclosure: Nate is an IoTC board member.)

There are several more organizations in various stages of launch, growth, etc. The sheer number of consortia, standards bodies and meetups, as well as the support behind them is another indicator of a receptive market — although it’s very likely that over time, the number of IoT-related consortia will merge and shrink.

Alternatively, there are more resources than ever before to help developers with creating their own APIs if that is their chosen path. Services such as Intel’s Mashery and Layer 7 help developers document, publish, and manage their own APIs, and make it easier for other developers to implement those APIs.

Move Beyond Us Nerds

Regardless of how powerful an IoT app is with regard to its depth and breadth, it is dangerous for app developers to harbor the misconception that controlling or programming things is fun — at least not for the majority of prospective consumers.

Very few of us enjoy these tasks of scheduling lights to come on when someone enters a room or programming electrical devices to use less energy when no one is home. When we are in front of a screen, most of us would rather be watching sports, binging on our favorite TV series, or communicating with our friends through social media. Interacting with an IoT task should have as little friction for a consumer as possible.

Standard interactions reduce that friction. In the same way that standards are used to streamline communications, standard interactions can streamline the customer experience. Any time a task can be accomplished without requiring the consumer to learn something entirely new, we remove another barrier to adoption.

Through all of this it’s essential to center development on the user experience. Consider how you interact today with the people in your life, how you track the tasks in your life, and how other people interact with you. Now apply that thinking to devices.

There are existing technologies most people use to schedule time and date-based tasks. Your prospective IoT consumers already understand how to manipulate a calendar app.  Why not leverage the iCal calendar API to do the same with your things? If a standard were in place so that users could schedule their “things” in iCal, you could remove the barrier of teaching users a new language for scheduling.

Logically, we can expand that thinking to remove other obstacles by looking at the apps and standards used for communicating with others using chat, images, email and voice.  Why not leverage those common interaction methods in our IoT “conversations”?

Wrapping This Up

Whether it’s real-time medical monitoring of the elderly living at home or creating greater energy efficiency across entire “Smart Cities,” it’s pretty clear that IoT represents a huge market opportunity to provide amazing benefits to consumers and enterprises alike.

While predictions on the timing of market uptake vary, the numbers are staggering across the board. Gartner predicts by 2020, there will be 26 billion connected devices with IoT revenue of over $300 billion and $1.9 trillion in total economic impact from cost savings, improved productivity and other factors. IDC estimates there will be 15 billion smart connected devices by the end of next year. Cisco claims a $14.4 trillion impact on “Internet of Everything”-related products and services.

It’s no wonder the developer community is jumping into the fray. What we now must do is harness all that energy and enthusiasm and focus it on reducing overall user friction and leveraging standards.

To achieve IoT’s massive potential and gain the consumer market adoption required to meet the projected revenue targets, we all need to walk thoughtfully toward the right goals. Rather than tripping over each other’s feet in a crowded and directionless race to get the most short-term business, we must work together to create a connected ecosystem where devices and carriers interoperate, presenting one voice of IoT to consumers around the globe.

So, you now know what we think. What do you see as the “must haves” to ensure the IoT market delivers on its promise?

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall