Why IoT standards aren't coming any time soon

A few standards are starting to come together, but it looks like the battles will go on for a few more years

A few brave souls predict internet of things standards will start to gel this year, but making all those connected things work together still looks like a long shot.

Two years ago, some industry analysts cautiously suggested that a vast array of IoT standards would merge into just a few beginning in 2017. If the internet of things in late 2014 was a cacophony of discordant musicians tuning up, it’s now reached the point where a few virtuosos are playing the same tune. But there’s still a lot of sheet music getting passed around.

Two of the biggest rivals in IoT did find harmony last year. The Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) was formed out of the AllSeen Alliance—which used the Qualcomm-developed AllJoyn—and the Intel-backed Open Interconnect Consortium. Previously, each group had been promoting its own way for devices to discover and learn about each other.

In another promising sign, the IEEE p2413 standard, which will provide a unified approach to defining IoT architectures, may be finished this year, according to Oleg Logvinov, chairman of the p2413 working group. The standard is meant to span all industries plus consumer devices. It wouldn’t replace existing data formats but would reduce the amount of effort required to share data among them.

Using what’s already finished

Some players are offering established technologies as common layers for interoperability. Last week at CES, the ZigBee Alliance announced Dotdot, which it calls a universal language for IoT. It’s an open application layer that handles the same kinds of things as OCF, but it’s based on the upper-layer protocol already implemented in many devices that use the ZigBee wireless network. Dotdot can already work with Thread networks.

Sigma Designs, the main company behind Z-Wave networks, has released the Z-Wave interoperability layer to help developers integrate those networks with applications and services using cloud-based platforms like HomeKit.

But there are still too many choices, for both developers and consumers, to make IoT simple and easy, industry analysts say. That will probably still be true 12 months from now, and maybe for two or three more years, they said.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where consolidation has made the lives of solution providers and application developers much easier,” Machina Research analyst Andy Castonguay said. “You still have a tremendous array of options out there.”

That’s kept consumer choices fragmented, too, which is one issue holding back smart homes, Avi Greengart at Current Analysis said. Most consumers won’t buy IoT gear until they see clear value, ease of installation, and ease of interoperability, he said.

“Every major computing and silicon vendor is competing in this space, and there hasn’t been a consolidation around winners just yet. The market is kind of a mess right now,” Greengart said.

Enter the lawyers

Why is it so hard to agree on standards? “They’re big companies, and they move slowly,” said Mike Krell of Moor Insights and Strategy. Standards tend to raise intellectual property issues that bring armies of lawyers into the picture.

Even breakthroughs in standards diplomacy aren’t guarantees. Just because an impressive list of vendors, including Microsoft, Samsung, Cisco Systems, GE Digital, and Haier belong to OCF, that doesn’t mean they’ll all adopt the organization’s standard across all their products, Krell said. It’s common for big vendors to join many industry groups just to engage with and influence trends.

There’s too much at stake in a potentially huge market for major companies to give up the chance to dominate home IoT, Greengart said.

“I’m highly skeptical that ‘co-opetition’ in this regard will prevail over competition. And given than nobody knows what layer of the stack is going to be the most valuable one, everyone is fighting for their own,” he said.

The common thread that will make smart homes work may turn out to be a system from one vendor, like Apple’s HomeKit, Greengart said. Apple is as well-positioned as any company to make that happen. But even though many manufacturers at last week’s CES show introduced products that use HomeKit, they didn’t play up that capability much, he said.

Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based AI platform that made a splash at CES, at least provides a single user interface, though Greengart said it’s not really a full IoT platform like HomeKit—yet.

There’s even more work to do

Even if part of the technology stack is standardized and life gets easier for developers and buyers, there are other hurdles to mass adoption of home IoT.

Security, one of consumers’ biggest worries, has to be addressed across the board instead of one component at a time, as it is now, Machina’s Castonguay said.

“We still are waiting for the market to develop an approach that would allow for a full, end-to-end, consistently updated and audited security approach,” he said.

Then there’s the issue of how consumers will choose to buy IoT products. While most smart homes are do-it-yourself affairs today, carriers and cable companies may become the main sales channel, Krell said. But it’s still too soon to say.

Some good news

While things may be murky at home, there are glimmers of hope in another part of the internet of things.

Last year, the 3GPP, which sets cellular standards, settled on two specifications for low-power versions of LTE. Those technologies, called Category M1 and Category NB1, will lead carriers to roll out specialized IoT services, Castonguay said. Both of the new technologies are slower than regular mobile data service but use less energy, so they’re compatible with small, battery-powered connected objects like sensors. As part of the LTE standard, these systems are relatively easy and economical upgrades to current networks.

Another low-power, wide-area networking standard, LoRa, is gaining momentum with more national rollouts, Castonguay said. Comcast announced in October that it’s considering a nationwide LoRa network to serve enterprises. Some carriers in other countries already use the technology. Ingenu, a U.S. company with its own type of low-power network, is also making gains around the world, he said.

Wherever IoT does reach mass adoption, it will be thanks to one or two technologies—open or not—that have somehow caught on with users. “Sometimes ubiquity is the most important part of a standard,” Greengart said.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.