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Battle Scenes from the IoT Standards War

Battle Scenes from the IoT Standards War

The Internet of Things is exploding. A consumer products CEO recently told his development team: "Don't build anything that isn't connected." Yet the standards to support this rapid development are still in the toddler stage. We checked in with Cees Links, CEO of GreenPeak, a company involved in RF communication technology for wireless connected applications. Links offered granular detail of the inevitable battle over IoT standards.

What is the current state of IoT standards?

Cees Links: The Internet of Things is experiencing the typical challenges of an emerging new large market opportunity. The IoT is generating rapid innovation, opportunities for differentiation while at the same time, creating an immediate need for standardization.

These are the ingredients for an interesting melting pot of conflicting interests, as we have seen in the past with the emergence of new fields of technology. Once a technology is established (cell phones, Internet, computers, TV/DVD players) everything starts to appear and feels logical, creating the impression to the outsider that it was a straight line from innovation to full market acceptance.

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Well, the development of standards is rarely straightforward or simple. Usually new markets come to real fruition once there is some common learning and acceptance that standards are needed and good for everyone. Currently we are in the middle stage of developing standards for the IoT. The large companies with the large budgets are trying to push their vision into the market and establish their implementation of that vision as THE standard, by rallying so-called eco-systems around it.

What groups are vying to assert their vision for standards?

Cees Links: There are three different application models for the IoT, related to networking standards. There is the wide area network, essentially using the cellular network to have devices communicate, currently challenged by SigFox, a network of antennas and base stations independent from current telecommunication networks worldwide.

The second is the local area network, where low-power WiFi, ZigBee, Thread (promoted by Google/Nest) are contenders. Finally, the personal area network around Bluetooth and ANT+ are players. And as expected, each standard is trying to push the boundaries as much as possible.

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On top of that there are several "application layer" standards: ZigBee again (from the ZigBee Alliance with 400-plus members), Apple's Home Kit, AllJoyn from the AllSeen Alliance (pushed by Qualcomm), and IoTivity from the Open Interconnect Consortium (pushed by Intel). Too crowded and confusing, for everyone, so this needs to be sorted out or it will become a liability on the growth of the market. Product makers therefore are holding back, avoiding the need to support too many standards at the same time, which makes products too expensive.

Are there industry biases showing up in the drive toward standards?

Cees Links: There definitely are. WiFi and Bluetooth are established names, so calling something Low-Power WiFi, even if it has little to do with WiFi as we know it today, is a bias. The same applies to Bluetooth Smart. It has very little to do with Bluetooth as we know it so far, but by calling it Bluetooth, it creates such a bias.

But marketing is all about creating biases and using them, so that should not be a surprise. Apple does something similar with Home Kit, building a standard for its own eco-system - which leads to the somewhat philosophical question: what is a standard? I am inclined to say that a standard is the result of an open interactive process, leading to agreement that is in the best interest of the customer or the consumer.

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