The growing tide of news and noise around the Internet of Things (IoT) suggests that we will be surrounded by machines endlessly chattering away to each other. Probably, exchanging vital information like how much milk you have used in the last week, and alerting your smartphone to the fact that your only remaining carton is on the verge of going sour.
Of course, it means much more than that, and will have some profound impacts and drive many changes, some as yet unknowable. Such are the lessons we have learned from previous experience with the creation of new networks, and intersecting points of intelligence – human or otherwise.
But, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is not, in itself, new. Point-to-point connections of equipment, with unattended fault reporting and remote diagnostics, have been a feature of high-value equipment for a long time. For example, IBM was including this kind of technology into its AS/400 systems as long ago as the late 1980s.
One of the limiting factors to widespread adoption, and a challenge facing the IoT as it is spread and seeks to become ubiquitous, is how to ensure that each node in the network is able to discover and communicate successfully with others to share data. This need for a common protocol, akin to HTTP underpinning the success of the world-wide web, has had a higher profile in the news over the last month with announcements relating to the UK’s Technology Strategy Board funded Hypercat project.
This new specification, built collaboratively by 40 technology companies who are part of the project, aims to provide a browsable catalogue that machines can interrogate to search for, and ascertain the capabilities of, other endpoints that might be useful or necessary in order to establish a connection. Clearly, this could massively change the way in which service providers learn about asset failures – and the nature of their first response. Also, should the engineer be able to interrogate the equipment directly from their own smartphone or tablet, this will similarly impact the delivery of service on the ground and likely improve the quality of data recorded about any failure.
“Quick and easy connectivity is critical to the successful adoption and deployment of IoT-enabled devices” comments Andy Potter, Chief Technical Architect at Cognito. “But, getting all manufacturers to agree to a common standard like Hypercat is a real challenge. Each wants to add in proprietary features that lock-in customers to their own products. That may not be in the customers’ interests as it reduces choice, and ultimately they control whether a standard is adopted through their purchasing decisions. We believe a common approach will speed adoption, and allow software developers like us to focus on intelligent, added-value transactions, rather than building - and rebuilding - low-level interfaces to connect diverse manufacturers’ equipment.”
Undoubtedly, M2M and IoT have to learn to talk in a common language for this to succeed in the way that Cisco has suggested, with 50 billion devices connected together. One thing is for sure, there are likely to be many misunderstandings along the way.