For decades, scientists have pursued a “unified theory of everything,” a cohesive explanation that would encompass all physical phenomena, from subatomic particles to the entire cosmos. Now the race is on in the smart home industry to develop a unified “Internet of everything,” a system that will allow smart products of all kinds — from home heating and security systems to Crock-Pots and baby monitors — to communicate with one another and a central control panel.
And, as with physics, that unity is proving most elusive.
Early versions of the smart home were primarily sensor-driven. Devices in the home could monitor the ambient room temperature for individual family members, adjust lighting settings for different times of day, and collect health data — such as temperature and blood pressure — to relay to one’s healthcare provider. Then along came scanning technologies that could notify you if you were running out of milk, if the clothes needed to be removed from the dryer, or if an elderly parent had not left the house for some time.
Advanced technologies and the widespread use of app-driven smartphones and tablets have taken the concept of the smart home to a new level. Today’s smart technologies not only respond to environmental stimuli or user input, but they also “learn” about the home’s occupants by gathering data about their movements and habits. They use what they’ve learned to adjust conditions in the home, conserve resources and provide comfort and convenience.
As a result, there is an advantage to connecting all these independent — and now interdependent— devices via a system that would allow them to share data and thus “learn” from one another. In addition, the proliferation of smart home products — everything from mechanical systems (like HVAC, plumbing and lighting), to door locks and security monitoring, to appliances, home A/V and personal items — has created a need to manage them more effectively.
Imagine if every device in your home had its own unique remote control.
Some of the industry’s biggest names have recently teamed up to develop a unified system of managing the “Internet of things.” In mid-July, Google’s Nest Labs launched a networking protocol called Thread, which it hopes others will use to standardize smart home products.
So far Samsung Electronics and chip companies ARM Holdings, Freescale Semiconductor and Silicon Labs, as well as Big Ass Fans and lock-maker Yale have signed on to produce and certify Thread-compatible products.
Around the same time, a nonprofit group calling themselves the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) announced an open-source initiative to develop a language that would allow products from various manufacturers to communicate with one another. Among the companies involved are Samsung, Intel and Dell.
The initiative is similar to an open-source project started by Qualcomm, called AllJoyn, that is now overseen by a nonprofit group call the Allseen Alliance, which has attracted the likes of Microsoft and Symantec. Its aim is to “let the compatible smart things around us recognize each other and share resources and information across brands, networks and operating systems.”
Going in the opposite direction, from open-source to proprietary, Apple has introduced HomeKit, a software program for integrating home automation devices. Apple is urging manufacturers to adopt its program so that any device could be operated using any iOS device.
With smart products pouring onto the market, the need for standards is growing critical. Only time will tell which, if any, of these groups will win the day. At present, none has gained sufficient traction to dominate the industry. Before the “Internet of everything” can be unified, the industry must be willing to unify around a standard that will serve the interests of everyone.
About the Author
Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.