Now that we can connect everything, should we?

Steven P. Nelson, Executive Director, IOT Freescale Semiconductor
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Steven P. Nelson, Executive Director, IOT Freescale Semiconductor

Contrary to popular belief, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is not new. The technology world loves to put a single label on a trend so that it can package and promote it, but the industry has been connecting intelligent devices for years. It’s been a steady evolution, not revolution. Embedded processing has been adding intelligence and improving the performance of devices around us for decades.

In the rush to connect all kinds of devices, we run the real risk of compromising on security and privacy that can slow the growth of truly valuable products and services

What is new is the broad availability of low-cost processing and wireless communications, making it possible to connect almost anything to the internet for just a couple of dollars. But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. In the rush to connect all kinds of devices, we run the real risk of compromising security and privacy, which can slow the growth of truly valuable products and services. Consumers are just now realizing how all of this data gathering can be helpful, but that it can have some negative consequences as well.

It all starts with security

A key challenge for the IoT is ensuring that information collected from the vast number of edge nodes is not intercepted or altered as it makes its way through intelligent gateways and to the cloud. Suppliers are working to ensure that building blocks of a secure system are in place and available. Encrypted flash memory, secure boot, communications protocols and other building blocks help create a chain of security. Many companies are making products that will connect to both consumer and business networks, thus demanding a process for securing the connections and authenticating nodes that will be trusted on the network. In this time of ‘bring your own device’, keeping the network secure is a huge challenge.

There is also the necessity of employing secure and intelligent IoT gateways. These ‘universal translators’ are tasked to communicate with devices that use a myriad of wireless protocols. Although it appears to the average consumer stable and reliable wireless communications are widespread, the reality is that there are a large number of standards that continue to evolve.

These IoTgate ways also need to perform the first level of data analysis, bringing decision making closer to the edge nodes. Not all data is worth the cost of sending and storing in the cloud. Systems need to respond to the exceptions, especially data that is outside of the norm. Constantly reporting to the cloud that it is 72 degrees probably isn’t interesting. A rapidly changing temperature could indicate a variety of issues, from failing equipment, a door or windows left open, or even a fire.

Into the cloud

Of course, the true benefit of IoT is knowledge. Collecting thousands of data points is meaningless, if it is not used in some way that goes beyond just the management of some end point or thing. The customer will benefit by having a product with some new compelling features. But the true benefit comes from a greatly enhanced relationship with that customer.

An example could be connecting an appliance like a washer or dryer. The consumer can perform functions like programming a delayed start time so clothes are finished when they come home from work. Or they receive a text that lets them know the cycle is finished. What may be more compelling is consumers can monitor how their appliances are operating over a long period of time to help determine when the efficiency is declining and it may be time for service or replacement.

But for the manufacturer, the benefits are great as well. They’re able to collect data on how their products are used on a broad scale. They can remotely monitor use patterns and recommend preventive maintenance services. They can correlate failure rates of parts to actual usage to improve reliability.

The challenge is how companies will balance the positive uses of information that benefit their customer, with the more intrusive uses that are making the headlines. There’s a growing sensitivity to information that connected devices are collecting and who controls that information. What is the line between value added services, and monitoring a customer’s behavior and using that information in ways they didn’t intend? There are a range of stories circulating about smart TVs that have 40+ page privacy policies. These products collect speech, gestures and images from inside a home. Yes, those can provide a great user experience, but do we expect the consumer to read and understand all of those details on how that information may be used? Do they have to disable those features to protect their privacy?

The Bigger Picture

The ultimate value in the world of IoT is bringing together data from disparate sources where there are huge benefits. Today, we’re still in the world of data silos. They’re certainly bigger silos, but data isn’t shared. The value is locked away. Each company has a product, an app and a cloud, but no real way to bring it all together. There must be standards that allow true power in the data to be realized.

Summary

The world of connected devices is here. How big will it be? No sure way to tell, but the growth is here today and has been coming for some time.

Companies are running headlong into the world of IoT, producing products that were never intended to be connected, but now are expected to be part of a connected world. As I close, here are some points to consider:

Is it simple? Is it easy to operate? Does it blend invisibly into the user’s routine? Does it have staying power? Does it add value, or will the user lose interest over time? Is it stable? Will it operate if left untouched for months? Years? Does it need regular updating or resetting? Is it secure? Have there been tradeoffs between time to market, cost and security? Does it follow standards? Will it operate well with other devices?

The opportunities for IoT are everywhere. The challenge is to ensure we’re solving the right problems.

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