Internet of Things: Why your home is a connected device Tower of Babel

Your "things" may be connected to the Internet, but for the most part, they aren't connected to each other. It doesn't have to be that way.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
The Tower of Babel
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Rotterdam)

According to legend written in the Hebrew Bible, post-diluvian humanity, united by a single language, dared to insult The Lord by building a city whose featured structure was an immense tower that would touch the heavens itself.

As punishment, God scattered humanity, the city building project was abandoned, and He made it so that they could not understand each other. And thus the city was called Babel.

Like the fabled tower, your home is filled with devices that communicate across your wireless network and to the Internet, but by and large cannot understand or talk to each other.

God, of course, did not do this. A basic unwillingness to cooperate between vendors in order to protect their ecosystems and keep their APIs and interfaces completely "secret sauce" is to blame.

IoT vendors want you to buy more of their stuff, and not necessarily use their products to talk to the other stuff you own.

Which of course is a shame. Your devices have an array of sensors and storage that are connected to numerous Cloud services. Ideally, they should be able to communicate with each other, so that developers can come up with interesting and useful applications.

In a previous piece, I talked about the limitations of the Amazon Echo when compared with the SONOS system. My main beef with it is Amazon's lack of partnerships that SONOS has, and it doesn't have multi-room capability.

SONOS, of course, doesn't have access to Prime Music, nor does it have voice recognition and text-to-speech capabilities. SONOS doesn't have a Bluetooth interface either, which Echo does.

It would be possible, given a partnership or agreement between the two companies, to get the the best of both worlds. Amazon could provide access to Prime Music APIs to SONOS, and the ZonePlayer IP could be licensed to Amazon so that an Echo could participate on a SONOS multi-room mesh network.

That would allow an Echo to control a SONOS network with voice recognition and play Amazon Prime content on a SONOS system, as well as feed in Bluetooth audio content from other connected devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

The problem in this case is that these two products overlap in function and they compete with each other for market share. But nobody really wants to own a collection of devices that do similar things and operate in silos.

There's some hope around eliminating the IoT Tower of Babel, but it is slow going. Agreements between specific vendors are allowing certain products to talk to each other, such as with Google's "Works with NEST" initiative.

This allows the NEST thermostat to talk to my Big Ass Fan in my living room in order to optimize cooling for energy efficiency, and for my OOMA VOIP system to talk to the thermostat and NEST smoke alarm sensors for certain trigger-related tasks, such as sending me an SMS when the thermostat returns from "Away mode" when I'm not home, auto-forward my phone calls to my smartphone when I leave the house, or sending me an alert or making a phone call if the smoke alarms go off.

It can even trigger an alert if an expected activity doesn't occur, such as if your children don't set off the "Away" sensor on the NEST when they come home from school by a certain time.

While the Works with NEST program is a great start, it really represents just a small fraction of what developers could do if there was a lingua franca for IoT cross-device interop.

Google is looking to expand what it is doing with "Works with NEST" using Brillo and Weave, which they've announced at the latest Google I/O conference.

Brillo is a stripped down IoT platform whereas Weave is the interface/communications API.

But it will likely be limited to working between IoT devices running on Android, as the Brillo stack is Android-based. Conceivably, Weave could be ported to other OSes, such as Windows, Mac OS and iOS as well as other embedded versions of Linux besides Android. However, Google's willingness to be a true cross-platform player has yet to be tested.

It's also got a crappy track record maintaining interoperability and app compatibility between licensees of Android running different versions, or between those that have gone full-rogue with their own implementations of the mobile OS using AOSP -- such as Amazon with their FireOS-based products.

Let's get back to SONOS. For example, If the company were to publish its APIs, there's a lot other IoT device makers could plug into.

One company, Netonos, recently funded a project on Kickstarter that allows you to add additional intelligence to your SONOS system.

The Netonos Note allows for the integration of modern surround sound receivers, allows you to save your SONOS groupsets, integrates connected doorbells so that custom chimes can play throughout the house, and even has text-to-speech support for custom-configured PA announcements such as "Dinner is ready."

Now of course to make this work Netonos had to reverse engineer the SONOS APIs. But SONOS could just as easily launch its own developer program so even more compelling applications could be built. The possibilities would be endless.

Will the Internet of Things always be a Tower of Babel? Or will vendors be increasingly willing to cooperate in the name of interoperability and enhanced functionality for their end-users? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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