IoT Standards: Which Will Prevail?

Several industry groups that include big names like Google and Intel have recently formed to create standards for the emerging Internet of Things. The race is on.

Jim O'Reilly

September 9, 2014

3 Min Read
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Everyone seems to agree: Internet of Things (IoT) is coming, and it will be a huge business. The idea of devices of all sorts coming under computer control, and being able to communicate with servers and with each other promises an explosion of creativity.

Three factors are fueling this trend. First, computer chips with radio communications built in are getting very inexpensive; the volume of smartphones and tablets has seen to that. Second, the cost of packaging small quantities of units has dropped with the advent of 3D printing. Third, sensor technology has evolved a great deal in the last few years, making small, accurate sensors easy to build.

Device ubiquity and intercommunication brings up the question of what language they all speak. To that end, a number of groups have formed in order to define standards for IoT.

Developed by Google, the "Thread" protocol is already in its Nest products. Now, Google, along with Samsung, ARM, Phillips, the Yale lock company and others have formed the Thread Group, which targets the household electronics space.. The group's aim is to tie into the ZigBee wireless link that's already in a variety of products, such as smart light bulbs. Products can claim to be Thread-compatible today, but it will be next year for first products officially certified to the standard.

Qualcomm, likewise, has taken its AllJoyn protocol to the open source arena, and formed an interest group, the AllSeen Alliance that includes the Linux Foundation, Cisco, Microsoft, Lucky Goldstar (LGT) and others. AllJoyn's claim to fame is that it can easily connect devices, with proximity sensing and WiFi networking.

Another industry group has formed to define a common "Open Interconnect Consortium" standard. Established by Intel, Dell Samsung, and others, this effort is still somewhat embryonic.

On a whole different plane, the Industry Internet Consortium formed by  Intel, IBM, ATT, Cisco, and GE is looking to solve the IoT problems peculiar to industrial equipment.

If this all sounds like confusion more than harmony, that's certainly the case. There's already some public acrimony between groups, with Intel declaring the AllJoyn protocol inadequate, while Cisco countered with "disappointment" that there is now a competing Intel-driven alliance. To add some confusion, the Internet Consortium has endorsed both AllSeen and OIC. This is to be expected, but there are egos involved at both the corporate and individual level, and we face the risk that we will end up with a reprise of the Betamax-VHS war, which would slow growth and irritate the consumer to the point of mistrust.

We would be far better off if there were an umbrella organization, such as IEEE, that addressed IoT standards, rather than partisan camps. This would remove the possibility of incompatible solutions on the store shelves. More importantly, it would bring more effort to bear on solving the security issues that are not currently being addressed well by any of the groups.

Connectivity is one thing, but if I had an IoT-connected insulin infuser or pacemaker, I'd be sweating today, waiting for that fatal hack. IoT security will be critical to an environment of millions of bots that will be able to do things for and to us, from opening our house doors to guiding one's car off a cliff road.

It's way too early to be definitive on winners. The Thread Group has existing products, but a narrow niche. AllSeen is also well along, while Intel's team is just beginning the effort. It's not too late to converge!

Still, despite the confusion, the situation is way better than the alternative, which was a proprietary free-for-all, where nothing is really standard and security is very weak just because of the dilution of many schemes. This would slow down or even stop IoT from evolving.

About the Author(s)

Jim O'Reilly


Jim O'Reilly was Vice President of Engineering at Germane Systems, where he created ruggedized servers and storage for the US submarine fleet. He has also held senior management positions at SGI/Rackable and Verari; was CEO at startups Scalant and CDS; headed operations at PC Brand and Metalithic; and led major divisions of Memorex-Telex and NCR, where his team developed the first SCSI ASIC, now in the Smithsonian. Jim is currently a consultant focused on storage and cloud computing.

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