Friday, September 5, 2014

The IoT & The Holy Grail


The Knights and Their Quest

"(The IoT) means different things to different people and it means nothing to a lot of people." - Steve Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm

There are quite a few companies jumping onto the IoT bandwagon, eagerly charging forward in the hope of establishing themselves on the leading edge of the Next Big Thing. How they are approaching this new opportunity depends on a variety of factors internal to each aspiring participant - their own individual strengths, preconceptions, wishes and ambitions crafting their particular viewpoints on how the market will grow & take shape and what their individual roles in that market will be.

The older, established firms mostly see a replay of the growth and excitement of the 1990's, when the DotCom bubble drove the expansion of enterprise and carrier networking companies and their chip & software suppliers. Today, you see Intel anticipating higher demand for new CPUs and SoCs optimized for mobile computing, Cisco touting its enterprise networking offerings to accommodate rising demand on wired infrastructure and HP positioning itself as a supplier of security solutions for personal and corporate wireless traffic. In short, the established players are mostly hoping to sell much more of what they have or moderate enhancements of the same offerings. One can see it clearly in their current marketing and promotional efforts, where existing product lines and solutions are repackaged as IoT offerings and company forecasts anticipate more IoT devices being deployed in the next several years than there are stars in the Milky Way.

Then there are those who are exploring the fledgling market space with new electronic products that perform various computational functions and are being advertised as IoT products. These are today's Knights of the Round Table in High Technology - venturing forth on their quest to discover the next 'killer app' that will reshape the contours of the world. Let's take a look at a few of the latest offerings trumpeted as IoT products just to get a flavor of what's common out there.

First, an example from Garmin:

Garmin is already widely known and respected for its GPS devices (up to a point - I have quite a few gripes about my model), so the IoT is a natural progression for them. Without question the above product would be of interest to well-heeled hunters. This is not exactly the kind of handheld computing product that is likely to garner sales in the 100's of millions of units, but per its reviews, it seems to perform the task for which it was designed rather well. However, despite its admirable line of sight broadcast range and use of GPS mapping, this product can't really be categorized as an IoT device, as its interaction with the internet is at best tangential to its function. 

Next, an example from consumer electronics powerhouse Samsung:


I'm an admirer of this company and am certain that they will be a formidable global power on the technology landscape in the 21st century. The device provides functions for fitness-conscious users, serves as a small PMP, has a built-in camera and can receive text, email and phone notifications. Notably, however, it's last set of capabilities depends on having a linked smartphone within Bluetooth range. 

It's clear that the design has fans, and undoubtedly Samsung did their best to make a quality product. But this isn't a "Dick Tracy" watch. It is, in reality, a smartphone accessory - not a genuine IoT device.

The next link is a motherload of products that are being promoted as IoT devices for the home, health & fitness, municipalities, the enterprise, and various whimsical applications:

A couple of observations can be readily deduced concerning this selection: 
1. All the smart home products consist of remote sensors that connect first with some sort of hub or controller which can then be accessed thru a smartphone. 
2. For the wearables, a smartphone in Bluetooth range is required. Much of the same can be said for the municipal applications - they need user proximity to be active. 
3.The industrial applications cover both proximity interactions as well as sensors feeding into a central hub for data input, collation, analysis, evaluation and control.

A particularly aggravating aspect of studying and analyzing this developing market is the abundance of products advertised as being part of the IoT which don't really qualify as such. Clearly I'm not alone in this sense of frustration, as evidenced by the quote from Qualcomm's CEO at the beginning of this editorial. 

The fact that the field is so muddled with this level of nonsensical gibberish and noise is entirely the fault of the mainstream media that purports to track High Technology. The media has done a singularly awful job in rationally covering developments in the IoT space and has proven itself to be completely lacking in judgement, expertise and the capacity for critical reasoning in its reporting on the happenings in the market. Thru cheerleading instead of investigative reporting, mass media has been complicit in creating confusion and peddling hype with consequent damage to the credibility of genuine efforts to build this technology space.  In plainer terms, the mainstream media's contribution can be accurately characterized as this:


By contrast, when scrutinized objectively, very little if any of the functionality of the above assortment of widgets and gadgets has anything to do with the internet. Notably, all of these applications depend on accessing either a local wireless spectrum or LAN and include a sort of centralized access point with some level of higher processing responsibility and storage capacity. 

This is telling, and is key to understanding what would constitute a genuine IoT device or application. It also hints at how IoT devices are likely to evolve over time, as well as which sectors of the High Technology industry are in position to grow and play effectively in this space (more on that later.)

One can discern a pattern developing. From factories installing measurement sensors to monitor manufacturing lines and processes, to offices with security systems that gather inputs from cameras and card key door locks, municipalities with traffic monitoring sensors, individual consumers with smart homes and cars, etc - these customers all gather data which has to go somewhere to be processed. Almost all of that data will NOT go to the internet, but to some sort of  hub or controller that will require access to a LAN or a wireless band (from localized Wifi to Bluetooth, iRDA and UWB) and ultimately to a server (either fixed or mobile), where the data will be collated, analyzed, compared, calculated and otherwise employed by the user to decide on courses of action.The only part of the sequence that might weigh on the resources of the internet is the command of the access point by the user's controller device. 

Thus we discover a pivotal fact - the truly major server interactions with the internet will NOT be by dumb devices, but by smart ones with their own processing capabilities. The nodes will be advanced, sophisticated, capable of significant independent processing and able to exert control over sensor networks remotely by user actions. 

Stated differently, it is unlikely that the internet will be burdened with providing individual IP addresses to things such as lamps, ovens, thermostats, lawn sprinklers, garage door openers and other dumb sensors scattered around residences, offices, businesses, factories, towns & cities which will saturate the WWW with streams of raw data. On the other hand, it is much more likely that these individual items will be controlled thru a hierarchy of electronic automation dominated by 'smart' sensors feeding smarter controllers that send processed data in organized packets to a server that is operated by a user.

This understanding provides new product developers examples and context to guide their decisions on what to design. They will most likely find greater success by developing solutions that are highly independent of existing infrastructure and organized in a hierarchical framework. The resultant product offerings will provide greater utility thru incorporating advanced functionality and will do a much better job in addressing the vital issue of security. The recent public scandal over celebrity photos hacked from the iCloud has starkly illustrated that the importance of data security cannot be overemphasized.

The Gorge of Eternal Peril


If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. - Thoreau

So what does all this mean to our questing knights, stalwart and true as they hazard the dangers of the unknown to seek the new Holy Grail of High Tech - the killer app in the IoT? What further lessons can be learned?

A lot of wearables hitting the market today are solutions in search of a problem. This is an inevitable byproduct of enthusiastic and widespread innovation, and these explorers should be lauded for their efforts regardless of their frequent lack of success. Entrepreneurialism and invention depend on the willingness of adventurous, eager, creative, smart and driven people to take risks and experiment. 

Yet it is common to the birth and growth of all new markets that there is an early stampede to join the gold rush and periodic shakeouts of 80-90% of the participants who fail in their individual quests for success. Just as several Knights failed to answer the bridge-keeper's questions and safely cross over the infamous gorge in the Monty Python film, the demise of most IoT efforts will stem directly from not properly answering the questions and concerns of potential customers - even the unspoken ones - and not sufficiently discerning the needs and requirements of the targeted user base.

Killer apps are distinguished by the perspicacity of their design - the sagacity that seems inherent in their grasp of user needs and interests that were previously not even recognized by other market players (and perhaps not even by the users themselves.) In fact, no matter their particular functional differences, the history of killer apps reveals certain commonalities between them: 
1. They utilize capabilities which already exist in a clever, original, novel way. 
2. They are built from the ground up from some basic concept - a concept derived from an intrinsic understanding of how a heretofore unrealized combination of existing capabilities will constitute a value-adding solution that resonates with a large base of potential users. 
3. They are easy to use and don't require specialized or esoteric knowledge to make them fully functional in the hands of users.
4. They are presented for use in some sort of convenient or even familiar form factor.

Identifying a solution to a problem that many people don't even know exists is frequently referred to as 'vision.' It comes from recognizing that users instinctively (and often subconsciously) have a collection of disjointed, un-integrated and unspoken needs that arise from the difficulties, obstacles, problems & dissatisfactions that they experience as part of their everyday lives, and then capturing those needs in relation to very basic, atavistic behaviors & urges that arise from the most primitive parts of our brain - urges such as:
 - To be secure in one's existence
 - To have knowledge of one's surroundings
 - To have the information and understanding to be able to deal with threats and difficulties
 - To reach out and communicate
 - To be part of a community
 - To have meaningful and beneficial social interactions  
Those who fathom how those needs can be met thru the synthesis of existing and even ordinary functions into an offering that resounds positively with a large group of users have the kind of insight which we normally term 'genius.'

Castle Aaarrghh


In the Monty Python film, the Knights (or the few that are left) do eventually reach the castle where the Grail is kept. I believe I may have also discovered a Grail location of my own, in the form of an IoT concept.

I live very comfortably in a town in Southern Utah, but occasionally find that the local grocery stores don't have all the cooking ingredients that I like to use. So, every few months I take a 2 1/2 hour drive west to Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Las Vegas is a much more diverse city than most people realize. Not only are there many transplants from the eastern seaboard (including an astonishing number of taxi drivers from the boroughs of New York City, whose accents always warm my heart and make me feel a bit homesick and nostalgic), but there are sizable immigrant communities from every corner of the globe, with interesting and extremely fun grocery stores that cater to their culinary tastes. (If only I could find a place that made a decent espresso, it would be the perfect city for me...)

The drive, though a bit long, is not particularly difficult, as the roads are in mostly excellent shape across Utah and Nevada (in stark contrast to my recent experiences in California.) Nevertheless, the landscape is harsh as the I-I5 traverses the eastern half of the Mojave desert. The road has its share of obstacles and hazards - highway patrolmen in huge unmarked SUVs eager to write speeding tickets, road crews doing maintenance and road rebuilding along lengthy stretches, fast moving 18-wheelers rushing to make cross-country delivery schedules, an occasional traffic accident and even flood damage near normally dry arroyos from sudden drenching cloudbursts that occur from time to time. It was on a recent trip of this sort that my own IoT 'vision' simply popped into my head.

It occurred to me at some point between Mesquite and the Overton exit that an HOD (heads on display) which brought the entire dashboard to eye level would be extremely helpful. If this HOD could also display a road map with hazard updates, gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and other optional information such as weather & traffic reports, target location distances, contact information for destinations, a bluetooth link to my smartphone and a control mechanism that allowed me to manipulate the display all while allowing me to keep my eyes on the road, it could have enormous potential as a product.

Some of the auto manufacturers are already thinking along these lines, though the implementations are starkly different:

Glitzy as this video may be, Jaguar and other high end car makers are, in my estimation, headed down the wrong path with these autotainment/'connected car' schemes. These expensive optional systems are subject to becoming quickly dated and will almost certainly suffer under the harsh environmental conditions regularly experienced by automobiles. The maintenance of such systems, including software updates for security, bug fixing and feature enhancements will be a potentially arduous burden for the car manufacturer and its suppliers, the dealership network and, ultimately, the customer base. Worst of all, activating and interacting with system features requires the driver to take attention away from the road.

A vastly superior solution could be developed thru an astute amalgamation of Google Glass, Android Wear and Project Ara. Reconceptualizing the Glass main processing unit as a Personal Processor, the unit should be made so that it can be attached to essentially any set of eyeglasses or sunglasses. More functionality could be packed into the PP by moving it into 3D-IC packaging (which would dramatically improve the 3Ps of the system design.) Additional functionality can come in the form of tiny modules that either plug into the PP or which can tie into it thru Bluetooth or perhaps UWB. Control would still be thru the Glass swipe mechanic or voice actualization. 

Though all of these capabilities will take plenty of engineering work to perfect, the real trick will be tying into the network of 100's of MCUs that can typically be found in automobiles nowadays, monitoring and regulating oil pressure, engine block temperature, fluid levels, automatic door locks and windows and so forth. The information that one normally gathers from glancing at the dashboard & central console display screen will be available from those MCUs, provided there is a method of gaining access to the data. Perhaps an individual module - potentially a programmable one - will have to be developed for each manufacturer, accessing the master MCU of the vehicle thru a USB port. It's an issue that is likely solvable, but will require some investigation.

The key advantages to this approach include portability between automobiles, much easier maintainability, greater security and almost certainly an overall lower cost of ownership. Such an "Auto-Glass" solution also obeys the 'rules' of successful killer apps by not requiring the world to change for its adoption, but by working within the confines of current infrastructure. The computing strength of such a processing node is central to this.

The combination of Glass, Ara and Android Wear is potentially explosive and could spawn a smorgasbord of new applications besides this one, along with a plethora of companies. I'm hoping this editorial is read by one or more people who find an intersection between Glass, Ara and AW for automotive or other applications as intriguing as I do. If you're out there, drop me a note. Let's see what we can do together to turn this and other dreams into reality. The obstacles might seem daunting at first, but it is unlikely that they are insuperable.