The Internet of Things offers a host of benefits to the UK, such as improved data, customer service and even a manufacturing renaissance on British shores. However, a lack of loyalty to one, common manufacturing standard for connected devices amongst businesses is one of a number of barriers that is holding back mass adoption in the UK and Europe. (See also: What is the Internet of Things?)
Although many manufacturers like domestic appliances maker Electrolux, are developing a large range of connected products, experts believe that the IoT will only have reached critical mass, or ‘Industry 4.0’, when third-parties are able to connect to these products and offer new services.
For example, its connected range allows Electrolux to gain insight into products’ lifecycles, from design, to parts assembly, to delivery, to the kitchen. Critical mass adoption will have been reached when external services are able to connect into this thread, for instance, servicing firms who can be alerted when a machine is about to break down, or a comparison site that can push offers to the machine owner when it reaches the end of its life.
Across Europe and the UK, the technology to connect all sensor-fitted devices across a data network exists, the cost of technology required to control the communication of data through devices is falling and there is no slowdown in the popularity of mobile devices to keep people connected to the network. All this points to IoT being an all-pervasive technology within 10 years’ time.
So what’s standing in the way?
Despite these positive indicators, a significant barrier to mass adoption of IoT is the lack of agreement over technical standards.
The government’s goal to install 50 million smart electricity and gas meters in British homes and businesses by 2020 shows the UK’s willingness to implement cheaper, environmentally friendlier technologies that benefit both the provider and the customer. However, plagued by confusion over technical standards, utility companies - like British Gas - began installing smart meters that would be technically ‘out-of-date’ before the project finishes. Some of their 800,000 meters will have to be replaced by 2020 - an estimated 10-15 years short of their natural life expectancy and at added costs to customers.
Manufacturers of IoT devices and network providers will want to avoid the costs of creating incompatible devices, but a conflict between proprietary standards among device manufacturers is making this difficult, according to Dr Kevin Curran, a computer science and security expert.
As it stands “we cannot buy a smart toaster and expect it to communicate to the microwave,” he says.
The standards battle
To enable this, there are attempts to standardise interoperability between devices, with a number of industry-backed groups fighting to become the universal standard. The AllSeen Alliance, for example is backed by Electrolux’s CIO Marcus Claesson, as well as the Linux Foundation, LG, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Sharp, and HTC. AllSeen Alliance's software will be based on AllJoyn, Qualcomm’s open-source code.
Google has muscled in with its Thread alliance, Zigbee is another contender, and during Mobile World Congress earlier this month, Telefónica, Orange and Atos announced their commitment to the FIWARE platform for creating smart cities.
Marieta Rivero, chief deputy commercial officer at Telefónica said: “Using FIWARE, Smart Cities can deliver the platform, combining Open Data and the APIs based on which new innovative applications can be created.
Meanwhile, the UK government has backed home-grown standards group Hypercat, which, like the Industrial Internet consortium, aims to provide guidelines for best practices. The consortium includes Accenture, IBM, ARM, University of Cambridge and BT.
General Electric, following SAP’s lead last week, signed up to the Industrial Internet consortium, a 150-strong body to deliver use cases, test beds, reference architecture and frameworks and security to accelerate the development of the IoT. However, Bill Ruh, vice-president of GE's software division, says: “We don’t care about standards unless they get us to somewhere useful quickly.”
This attitude, echoed by many international firms that are afraid to place all their eggs in one basket, is exacerbating the standards issue.
Samsung and ARM, for example, is listed as a promoter for Thread and its rival Zigbee. A host of manufacturers and tech firms appear more than once on competitors’ lists. Firms’ fear of taking the wrong side and missing out on a technology update could hamper the development of a single breakthrough open standard.
Additionally, there are a number of smaller players that could emerge and disrupt the mix if they gain consumer favour. For example, OpenRemote’s open source software, which allows you to connect and automate devices. It allows people to create an app on their iPad to turn on lights, ceiling fans, TV and home appliances, it claims, regardless of the brand.
But there are a whole host of other obstacles to IoT adoption as well, says Curran, senior member of the electrical and electronic engineer’s association IEEE: “Challenges include government regulation with regards spectrum allocation, security, battery issues, costs and privacy.
“Security, standards and overburdening the network are three requirements that need to be focused on before implementing for mass adoption in modern life.”
Legal challenges over data privacy
General Electric’s Ruh argues that “the barriers are not actually technical ones”. Similarly, SAP’s chief technologist for the UK and Ireland, Mark Darbyshire says that while technical challenges are important, he is interested "in standards about how to express a business model”.
He says: “How do I express service level agreements (SLAs)? Let’s say I’ve signed up to a communication standard from my telco provider that says whoever you are we guarantee a certain amount of data. How do I take a SLA and apply it to your WiFi when I’m in your home. How can I carry across the business standard? For us [SAP] that’s where standards become more important.
"Also, there is a lot of focus on low-level technicalities and less focus on analytics."
Darbyshire recently dicussed the vendor’s legal concerns over the control of mass amounts of customer information the vendor will hold as data networks flourish.
“We might see all of your transactions but Cisco might see all of your packets, and Apple might see all of your interactions. So there are a number of companies that could get in the path of seeing all of what is going on - and we would all like to get some clarity on that. It’s not an easy question to answer."
He revealed that SAP, amongst other UK vendors, had spoken to the government recently to address data concerns.
The issue is heightened in the UK - the home of CCTV. Privacy issues could arise if data collection mechanisms lead to identifying individuals. Recently the police force came under fire for storing the images of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens - an issue that could escalate as more devices begin to communicate.
“One of the next steps is now for governments to engage more with the public through workshop on privacy and data collection. If we leave it took long, it may be too late to put the genie back in the bottle," adds Curran.
Data is, generally, being stored in the cloud. Companies need to pay extra attention to data lifecycle phases and ensure data destruction is available - and auditable - as part of its service. If any confidential datasets are residing outside of the company will need a layered security strategy.
Curran says: “The core principle to be followed here is the encryption of data. Proper encryption too. A company which does not encrypt sensitive customer data deserves to be fined accordingly...We can expect to see more direct input/output (I/O) offerings as well.”
Despite the fact that encryption is a basic step for large enterprise, recently well-known brands have fallen foul of security flaws. With connected devices, manufacturers need to encrypt more than their back end applications, something that BMW learnt the hard way when burglars were able to unlock cars using smartphones - a simple “man in the middle” attack.
Adapting the standard IP stack
Technologically, the IP stack will need to adapt to low-processing power microprocessors like wireless sensor network nodes that are likely to be deployed in the IoT.
Additionally, protocols will need to support high speed communication on nodes and route optimisation will be required.
Further into the future, international time zones will need to be synchronised if devices are to connect on an international scale.
Further, security issues need to be addressed. More specifically, device manufacturers will need to use the correct cryptographic algorithms and modes. An international ISO/IEC 29192 standard was devised as limited memory, battery life and restricted processors need a lightweight cryptography. The traditional form of heavy cryptography is not easy to deploy on a typical sensor - which is why, Curran warns, many IoT devices are currently insecure.
He adds: “Regulations for the IoT need to address issues of ‘minimum specifications’ for devices.”
Is the UK ready for the IoT?
As it stands, many embedded devices do not have enough computing power to implement all the relevant security layers and functionality a company, or consumer needs. Throw mismatched industry standards and poor battery life into the mix and the IoT does not appear as healthy as analysts would have you believe.
But once policy-makers start identifying and reducing the barriers to data sharing, bring industry together to promote interoperability and ensure that laws allow data sharing between different bodies, UK industry could flourish.
While you may not believe in sticking to one standard for now, indecision could be the biggest inhibitor to the IoT so far.