Ten years ago, before Internet of Things became a buzzword, our company had a simple idea to make it easier for developers to add complex radio technologies such as Wi-Fi® to their embedded applications. The prospect was mind-blowing. Wireless connectivity would open doors for customers, allowing them to collect data and provide an unlimited range of new services.
It was like the early days of the World Wide Web, when the sky was the limit. Wi-Fi was an easy technology choice, available virtually anywhere and without the need for major network management. Today, thousands of companies use Wi-Fi as the foundation for connectivity. Still, as I travel to meet customers and participate in industry events, I hear a common question: Is the IoT trend taking off as it should?
The answer to the question is more complex than a simple yes or no. People expect electronic devices to have wireless capabilities. Announcements of large IoT investments are made daily, with companies opening up development centers with billions of dollars behind them. Companies in traditionally non-electronic spaces are building IoT strategies. Yet, we see only a small number of truly transformational applications or new services. As often happens when transformational changes occur, there is an expectation that they will happen faster than they do. And when the change finally arrives, its impact is often larger than expected. This is what I think will happen with IoT.
The ability to connect every item virtually and collect data is transformational. This concept has the opportunity to challenge old markets and business models. The true innovation is how to expand the value of the connected products with the data and services they are enabling. Many of the products that will benefit from adding these new levels of connectivity and cloud services have traditionally included few electronics. This includes doorbells, locks, thermostats, vacuum cleaners and appliances. Moving these into the IoT era will require support from multiple engineering disciplines and new learnings for the companies developing these products.
To start, the electrical engineering department needs a boost, ideally to include a few radio-frequency (RF) engineers who can address the challenges associated with Wi-Fi or other RF technology. The challenge for RF lies not only in design, robustness and performance, but in the product’s need to pass both standards and regulatory certifications.
After hardware design comes software. As the complexity of a product increases, the demand for software increases dramatically, spanning from low-level firmware to networking (TCP/IP), applications (including mobile apps) and the user interface.
Further, products need to connect to the cloud in a robust way, which requires learning new protocols such as Message Queuing Telemetry Transport and the entire cloud application, with additional regulations regarding data collection and storage that vary by country.
Last – but maybe most importantly – there’s security. Providing adequate security is paramount for the success of individual products, but also for the industry as a whole. The security challenges mirror what I outlined above. These challenges span all the layers of an IoT product, from RF to the device level and the cloud. You also have to consider security for all the steps of the development process.
For most companies venturing into this space, there are many new technologies to grasp and manage just to make a new, production-worthy “Hello World” IoT-enabled product. Most companies have realized the complexity and scope required for a complete IoT product – they’re at the brink of Hello World.
Many companies that have released their first round of products spent so much effort developing basic functionality and infrastructure that they could not spare enough time to develop innovative features and services, which is ultimately where companies will see the full value. We are now getting into the second and third iterations of products, and more and more fully integrated solutions with real smart features will start to emerge. This will truly transform many of the markets as we know them today.
Our company has been working hard to remove many of the barriers I’ve mentioned so that our customers can focus their energy on innovating. This includes simplifying RF design with a certified module, complete software development kit (SDK) that is pre-loaded with cloud plug-ins and provides comprehensive hardware-based features that enable end-to-end security. I am convinced that we will see tremendous innovation in smart things, where the access to and analysis of data are coming to fruition.
The industry is moving ahead at full speed with IoT investments, but we have not seen anything yet. When we do, it will surely take us to the next level of the industrial revolution.
Mattias Lange is a manager of the SimpleLink™ MCU platform.