BY TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIE
It seems that most major technology trends or developments go through a number of fairly predictable stages before they reach stability and general use and acceptance. Those of us who remember the emergence of switched fabric interconnects can probably recall the time when there was mostly a lot of discussion, hype, innumerable PowerPoint presentations and a wide variety of actual specifications and implementations. I seem to recall that at one point there were over 100 proposed switched fabric proposals. This is the stage we’ll call TTUAW—Throwing Things Up Against the Wall.
After a number of years and a number of fortunes made and lost we have the reasonable choice of fabric interconnects we know today such as PCI Express, RapidIO, InfiniBand and several others. They are well established, defined as standard specifications and appropriate for different application areas. The era of hype has subsided, the specifications are both stable and more advanced versions are being developed and designers are mostly comfortable with the options they offer.
Which brings us to the current situation around the Internet of Things.
From this perspective, we seem to be in the late stages of the era of hype and moving into TTUAW. We are being told, with no particular indication of the actual origin of the numbers, that by 2030 or so there will be between 50 billion and one trillion Internet-connected devices all feeding Big Data up to the Cloud to make our lives better. On the questions of security and privacy things are a bit less clear. But the new world is coming. Let the masses rejoice!
It is this period of throwing things up against the wall to see what will stick that will help determine what the ultimate world of ioT will look like. Right now we have all sorts of ideas and implementations and of course, fortunes will be made and lost once more. Ideas are both practical and ridiculous ranging from industrial control, agricultural monitoring and tending to connected GPS dog collars. Now that the IoT has most definitely spread from the industrial arena into the realm of consumer products, we can expect to see quite a variety of proposed products and services. This is all good. It is a normal process of technological development. But what is really the nature of this technology? Well at its base it is the embedded technology we are all familiar with.
Of course, processors and other silicon components have gotten more powerful and more integrated; they consume less power and their systems are more connected. But these are developments that have been going on for some time and will naturally continue. There have been major advances in sensor technology making the more powerful, diverse, compact and lower cost. In addition, it depends on the existence of the Internet infrastructure, which continues to grow and proliferate. These, of course, represent advances in embedded systems but do they necessarily lead to what we are now calling the Internet of Things? I think not inevitably.
What really makes the Internet of Things and all the ideas that are getting thrown up against the wall is the existing (and, yes, developing) technology combined with ideas that make business sense. There ae possibly better ways to determine this than simply getting a hot idea, cobbling together an embedded device with CPU, sensors, software and Wi-Fi and trying to convince the world to take a look. However, it is one method and there seems to be quite a bit of it going on. This is especially true now that embedded systems have definitely broken out of the industrial/military realm and entered the consumer market with a vengeance. Now every toaster, dish washer, automobile and dog collar that has intelligence anyway is a “thing” that can be connected to the IoT.
The “bit” more in the title above involves the creation of attractive services that go with these “things” and actually give them value to a customer. That requires the connectivity and the Cloud-based analysis and software to add value and make them useful. But above all, it involves a plan, a strategy to determine the design of the device, the “thing” that will be developed by the embedded computer industry. In that end we already have the knowledge, the technology and the resources to build just about any kind of device that a business plan calls for and hook it up to the Web. Even the software to collect, format and transmit the data is already available. Beyond that, on the end were the actual user application lives, that is where real insight and creativity is required. So we can issue a call to entrepreneurs: “We can build almost anything you want, whether carefuly analyzed or planned or as an experiment.” As designers who want to make a living at this, though, we’d all prefer to make things with a future. And I know that will happen. It may, however, yet take a few things not sticking to that wall.