There are countless problems with making the so-called "internet of things" (IoT) a pragmatic reality: hardware, software and standards to name the big three.
But this week at the Samsung Developer Conference in San Francisco, at least two of them have started to find solutions.
During one of its exec's main keynotes, Samsung VP of ecosystems, Curtis Sasaki, gave a familiar, highfaluting pitch: there will be billions of connected devices equating to trillions of dollars of economic value. Just imagine if all of the 170 million utility poles in the United States had sound or vibration monitors. What if all the 17 million shipping containers on ships and truck today had sensors?
We've heard it all before. The difference this time is that Samsung has started coming up with technological answers to the many practical questions that result from such visions.
Roughly a year ago, Samsung launched a range of three chips designed specifically to be embedded in IoT products, ranging from tiny to the size of a large postage stamp. This time, the company has two additions: actual products with the chips in, and a system for handling all the data these things pump out.
In the intervening year, Samsung came to the realization – as others increasingly have as well – that the only answer to an IoT world is to be as open as possible. Open standards, maximum interoperability. The hard part then comes in figuring out how to make money.
Head in the cloud
One part of the solution is the launch of Artik Cloud: an online platform that makes it easy for developers to add devices and get them to talk to one another quickly and securely.
Samsung showcased one company that has already taken it up on the idea: light switch manufacturer Legrand. A Legrand exec appeared on stage saying how Artik Cloud had saved it "months of development time and a significant amount of money."
So we tracked down the company's new light switches and talked with the developer who was responsible for getting it all to work. Did it really save him months of development time?
Honestly, yes, he told us. Rather than having to write code that would work on the device and then more code that would communicate with it on a cloud service (he has been using Amazon's cloud service recently), he was able to set it up to talk to Samsung's Artik cloud. "It took maybe an hour or two," he told us. It helped, of course, that Legrand has stuck Samsung's smallest Artik 1 chip in the new switches.
He's not responsible for the server, so no 2:00am calls. And once set up, it is easy to add other devices and get them to talk to one another. And best of all, data security is handled by Samsung.
Sure, this guy is at a booth at a Samsung developer conference and his boss was just on stage saying how great the new platform is, but here was a man happy that he can get on with the fun parts of the job rather than having to make it all work and worrying about making a mistake.
He confided that it had been a bit of a rush getting the product display ready for the conference. "We really only had five days, but amazingly we were able to do it."
The demo is not working perfectly: a complex interaction between different lights with a single command (a "scene") was not ready yet. But they're planning on working on it tonight and hope to have it working for the second day of the show.
This is the kind of development approach and cycle that established industries display and is a long way from last year's IoT conferences where everyone would talk in far-off language about what they were planning to do. This year, they have started to actually do it.
Which of course leads to IoT's continued number one biggest problem: standards.
There is still no end in sight for the ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread, WiFi game of thrones battle for an IoT standard.
Samsung is stressing that its approach will be to work with every platform and standard it can. It wants to be the oil in the IoT engine. Although it's worth noting that Artik chips don't include Z-Wave.
Legrand's new range of switches include Artik chips and use Google's Thread standard – which was created to deal with frustrations over the other standards – to provide the all-essential mesh networking that low-power IoT devices need.
But in a sign that this is a big issue that no one is sure about, when we asked why Legrand had gone with Artik and Thread rather than the many other possible combinations, the Legrand representatives immediately paused. "We were briefed on exactly what to say if we were asked this question," they confessed.
The official answer has been calculated to say nothing of course. The real answer is that manufacturers are having to make bets on what companies and standards they think will come out on top.
Based on what Samsung has outlined today, it has a good chance of being just that. ®