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What’s standing in the way of IoT?

A major hurdle surrounding the IoT is interoperability. For those less familiar, we take a deep dive with Vectorform CEO, Kurt Steckling

Internet of Things (IoT) is taking the world by storm, and while the possibilities seem endless, there are some very real challenges to overcome first. To be adopted by the mainstream and used by everyday people in their homes, IoT’s success hinges on interoperability – the ability for IoT devices to connect and “talk” to each other. Unfortunately, the current market is far too fragmented.

Read below for Part One of our interview between Kurt Steckling, CEO of Vectorform, and Woody Floyd, Executive Director of Vectorform Seattle as they discusses the nuances of interoperability, why it’s a crucial problem to solve, and what it means for your business’s connected device.

Woody: A major hurdle surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT) is interoperability. For those less familiar, what are the big issues surrounding IoT and interoperability?

Kurt: Research consistently shows projected growth within the home automation market. But when you look at how growth is being driven, it’s by hundreds of different players creating thousands of consumer IoT solutions, which may or may not be able to talk to each other.

Today, consumers are buying a lot of one-off solutions to solve specific problems. They want to see who’s at their door. Or they want to turn their lights on at a certain time. Or they want to remotely control their thermostat. Whatever the problem is, they tend to buy one product to solve one problem at a time.

So, you end up owning a lot of different devices providing a lot of different services, but they’re one-off sets of features in your home. As you have all these different products made by different companies that each own a tiny piece of the market, you get a heavily fragmented ecosystem where devices are using different communication standards and often can’t connect to each other even though the consumer has all of them in their home.

That’s what the big interoperability problem looks like today. Moving forward, I think we’ll see more solutions designed with universal interests and connectivity in mind. I can see scenarios where new home builders are offering and installing hubs and sets of devices where interoperability is closer to being solved, making feature selection as simple as choosing a kitchen countertop or whether you want hardwood or carpeted floors. We need to get home automation to be as ubiquitous and easy as that.

W: You mentioned devices using different communication standards. What are Zigbee and ZWave, and how do they play a part in interoperability?

K: Those are two popular device communication standards for home automation right now.

They both use radio waves to connect devices to other local devices. They’re different from other standards that are growing in use – like TCP/IP over Ethernet or Wi-Fi. But Zigbee and ZWave are the de facto players.

Occasionally there are some differences in the way two manufacturers will implement Zwave in their devices, which ends up causing their interoperability to be less than optimal. But in general, Zwave devices within an ecosystem of other Zwave devices tend to have less interoperability problems. Most everything works together.

This may seem obvious – until you realize you have two Zigbee devices made by two different manufacturers and they won’t work together. This gets especially frustrating for people who think, “Well, it’s all Zigbee, it should all just work together.” For the consumer, it’s a reasonable assumption. On the technical side, though, we know Zigbee has many different flavors and different implementations.

“I can see scenarios where new home builders are offering and installing hubs and sets of devices where interoperability is closer to being solved, making feature selection as simple as choosing a kitchen countertop or whether you want hardwood or carpeted floors.”

W: What are the common challenges in the market now? Describe a scenario where a homeowner is facing interoperability issues.

K: The biggest challenges become obvious when a homeowner is expecting two products to work and they don’t.

Let’s say a homeowner buys two products, one is on Zwave and the other one ZigBee. They’ve been told the products are supposed to work with each other, so out of the box that’s the consumer’s expectation. But when they go through setup, they find out that while the two products do technically integrate, they’re doing so in a less than optimal way.

For example, because Zwave and ZigBee don’t send and read device data in the same exact way, devices running one or the other have trouble consistently and clearly communicating with the other. So, while the two devices are working together to some extent, they’re not integrated in a way that feels complete to the homeowner. The feeling of being let down on the expectation that all things are going to work together the way they should is a pretty common challenge right now.

Conversations and community around addressing these sorts of challenges don’t exist quite yet. There are certainly cases where different lines of products do work well together, and support is coalescing around those ecosystems.

Insteon is one of the older ecosystems that’s not as popular compared to some others, but it’s got a dedicated following of people who will only buy Insteon devices because they work together. Samsung SmartThings is a similar product family where communities of homeowners are sharing their experiences integrating all kinds of other devices they’ve hooked up to SmartThings.

In some cases, they’re even building their own custom integrations, publishing instructions, code, best practices, and lessons learned. Once in a while you’ll even see people making their own custom hardware and selling it to other folks for integration. So, even with the known challenges out there, we are seeing a lot of discussion that could lead to endless possibilities. It’s exciting stuff.

W: How are OEMs and OS providers motivated to solve interoperability? Are they benefiting from maintaining the status quo?

K: There may be a few niche players benefiting from the status quo. Some are getting a lift in sales because they’ve solved some specific interoperability problems. But I don’t think anybody is really benefiting at full potential just yet. Back to market fragmentation, there are so many players that even these niche benefits aren’t creating any big winners that I can see.

As for motivation, interoperability isn’t a technical problem—it’s a business problem. Any technology can be made to work together. The sole motivation to push interoperability comes directly from product sales. Right now, everyone’s focused on picking the right partners, trying to bet on which partners their clients will also pick, so ecosystem trends and serious consumer adoption starts happening. Once an OEM or OS provider decides that interoperability matters most to move more product, that’s when they’ll make it happen.

“Interoperability isn’t a technical problem—it’s a business problem. Any technology can be made to work together.”

W: Outside of OEMs and OS providers, what other key players could start or are already working to address these challenges? And what kind of role can Vectorform play?

K: There are a lot of players and different types of solutions that are already working to solve these types of problems.

Of course, there’s the individual manufacturers of non-related devices who could be talking and working together, inside the home. That’s a given. And even devices conventionally thought to be outside the home are going to start working on these sorts of ideas. Imagine a fitness band company thinking, from the ground up, about how to integrate with home appliances!

If you’re looking beyond the device and technology makers, integrators and adopters like contractors and home builders can be part of the solution. Often, electricians get asked to install smart devices. While they’re experts at traditional electrical work, they could also be experts and advisors on connected home-specific set up and wiring. There are specialized vendors out there doing that sort of thing, like audio/visual and alarm specialists, but they’re hard to come by and typically expensive. The more contractors who know about connected homes, the closer we’ll be to cheaper, better solutions.

Then we’ve got the big DIY community, which is connected to the contractor situation I just described. Something like 30 percent of consumers are deciding not to consult with an installer. They just do it themselves. I even know of an executive at Intel that goes to his neighbor for electrical help when he wants to add a new device in his home. Here’s a guy who can afford to hire a contractor, but has chosen not to. Most likely he wants the thrill of doing it himself. Or he’s had trouble finding a good contractor he likes. In either scenario, he’s putting together his own systems and solutions to get all his devices to work together. Another trend we’re seeing in DIY is a surge of interest from younger consumers. Younger folks are more interested in doing home improvement projects than the last generation. And they’re having some of the same kinds of experiences.

One way that Vectorform could be of service across these communities, as they work separately to solve these problems, is upstream partnerships and education. A good use of our expertise is partnering with the OEM and device manufacturers to guide them in designing and building devices that are easier to set up, configure, and use. Then we see benefits for the manufacturers, the contractors’ ease of installation, the DIY crowd’s interest in specific products and install services and, of course, better experiences for the end users.

“Interoperability isn’t a binary thing—it’s a broader and deeper question.”

W: How important is interoperability to a new connected device succeeding in today’s market?

K: It’s hugely important, and it’s more than just a “works/doesn’t work” type of approach.

Interoperability isn’t a binary thing—it’s a broader and deeper question. How truly integrated are two devices? What information do they share? How much influence does that information have in the way two devices work together and separately? Are they just communicating, or are they bringing greater value and service to the end user?

Right now, there are players either solving the scenarios one by one instead of holistically, or sitting on the sidelines waiting for dominant interoperability standards to get figured out. Either way, once one or two players emerge as the winners, those on the sidelines will rush into adoption.

That’s when we’ll see devices deeply talking to each other and sharing information in different and greater ways. So, while simply working together is an important hurdle many have to get over right now, the key to market success is how tightly devices can integrate with each other.

About Vectorform

IoT is complex – spanning technologies, devices, and user interfaces. Choosing the right partner to guide you from strategy through execution is critical to operating efficiently. As a leader in IoT product development, Vectorform has the expertise and unique partner networks to provide a customized, transformative solution for your business.

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