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The need for interoperability in IoT

Mike Loukides over at Radar has a must read piece on the need for interoperability in the Internet of Things. His broad argument is that the intrinsic value of any connected device is in its ability to easily communicate with other connected devices to provide a meaningful service. To do that you need open standards rather than locked-in systems. He singles out smart network enabled lighting, noting that many of the systems have vendor specific apps, presumably making it difficult long term for those systems to communicate with other household devices or even be managed by one app that had multiple control functions over different smart home devices.

Loukides draws an analogy to the birth of the internet:

With the Internet, everyone won because nobody won. In the 80s, each computer vendor had a proprietary network: IBMDEC, even startups like Apollo. The thinking was that if you made it hard to integrate equipment with other vendors, you could capture a client for yourself. The problem with that vision was simple: it was horrible for the customers.

The assumption behind any “lock-in” strategy is ultimately that your product is poor and that customers will gladly switch vendors if given a chance. And customers did switch when they realized that they had a chance: away from the proprietary networks and toward the open TCP/IP protocols. By 1990, it was clear that the proprietary networks were disappearing and that we were converging on the open Internet standards. The rising tide did indeed float all the boats. The few vendors who tried to “differentiate” themselves with features that didn’t interoperate failed; Microsoft ultimately gave up on the desire to “embrace, extend, and extinguish” the web.

The likelihood of a governing body stepping in and standardizing protocols and APIs for connected devices is improbable though not impossible. What we may have to see first is some companies experience the reality of designing and selling connected devices with limited value that don’t really hit with consumers because their proprietary nature limits their value. Needless to say, as we approach 50 billion connected devices improving interoperability will prove a very big task.