By BÃ¼lent Ã‡elebi, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder, AirTies
The Internet of Things (IoT) means different things to different people but however it is defined there is little doubt that it is coming of age at last. This is happening through maturation of relevant technologies including wireless communications and affordable chip sets that enable sufficient performance at lower power for small devices. A key point is that it is only through integration between islands of IoT that it will really start to make a major impact on consumersâ€™ homes and lives. There have been plenty of ideas knocking around for some years now, but finally the infrastructure is coming together to make them happen through vertical integration.
Such integration is being enabled by progress on three technical fronts of which connectivity â€“ both long distance and local via wireless â€“ is one. The other two are the things themselves and their interactions with the users. Seen this way it is clear that attempts to separate the IoT into disjoint categories that do not interact are counterproductive and that especially in the context of the home it makes sense to bracket all IP connected devices together. So this includes broadcast receiving devices such as TVs and radios that are not usually regarded as things but have always been connected one way and are now becoming two-way IP connected.
Then there are the emerging categories, which include domestic appliances like fridges that are being IP connected for the first time to enable remote monitoring and operation. There are also the newer classes of small IoT device, which could now be said to be entering a second generation as they gain better sensing capability, more powerful processors and larger memory, as compared with the current low cost but inadequate microprocessors. That itself is an important step towards a coherent integrated IoT network, since it enables devices such as smart thermostats to interoperate effectively with higher level control systems as well as participate within their own IoT sector. M2M (Machine To Machine) is another IoT sub-sector, but this covers specific applications involving communication between similar devices and is less relevant to IoT in the home.
When it comes to connectivity the key question concerns how things will communicate wirelessly with each other and with control systems within the home. Currently there are a number of contenders but I believe that this will consolidate down to just two at the home or premises level, which will be Wi-Fi and the low power version of Bluetooth.
Clearly Wi-Fi will continue to dominate for high bandwidth communications, allied to mesh technology to provide reliable and robust whole home coverage for applications such as premium video. Because of this ubiquity Wi-Fi will also provide the backbone connecting clusters of IoT devices to the Internet. But these devices will communicate among themselves using a low power radio that does not soak up battery capacity and currently the two most prevalent options are ZigBee and Z-Wave.
However neither of these has managed to attain market dominance, while Bluetooth has succeeded in achieving this for short range communications among computing and personal devices from printers to smartphones. It was lacking several key features needed for IoT such as very efficient power utilization, but has redressed these deficiencies with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which saves electricity by sending data in short bursts rather than continuous streams. It has also added support for IPv6, the latest version of the IP protocol with a greatly enlarged address space which is essential for coping with the anticipated IoT device proliferation, along with key features like Internet access, privacy and ultra-precise location awareness. The latter goes beyond Z-Wave and ZigBee and will help enable some novel IoT applications. BLE also supports mesh, extending the range by enabling each device to act as a communication node in a local Bluetooth network.
BLE has already been deployed by many device makers such as Apple and is likely to build on the current huge base for the earlier Bluetooth versions to squeeze out ZigBee and Z-Wave over time. There is also a low power version of Wi-Fi but we think that BLE offers such compelling advantages that it will prevail over that too. This would leave just two wireless protocols which will be closely coupled together, the one (BLE) optimized for low power IoT devices such as sensors and thermostats and the other (Wi-Fi) for services such as IPTV and OTT video that require high network capacity. It is worth noting here that by 2020 we will see major portions of the TV market having migrated to unmanaged OTT based delivery, about 30% in all. This will become a major driver for integrated IoT as content providers deliver directly to a range of consumer devices both in the home and outside.
There is also the question of a common UI, but this does not look like holding back initial IoT deployments, which indeed are taking place. The most urgent requirement is for a coherent wireless infrastructure in the home or premise and there are signs with for example BLE and the arrival of mesh technologies for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth that the foundations are now in place for IoT to blossom.