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Will industry muscle win in the IoT standards war?

My previous article analyzed how many IoT standards bodies and consortia there are, and it went on to list many of them including Thread, IPSO Alliance, AllSeen Alliance, IIC, oneM2M, FiWare and Open Connectivity Foundation. I also mentioned IoT connectors like IFTTT. They are all well-meaning organizations, they each have a different angle to justify their existence, and it could be argued that the work they do is vital because today in IoT there is no easy way to connect disparate devices and systems, each of which have their own protocols and APIs. For the Internet of Things to truly flourish, and for sustainable ecosystems to emerge, surely we need some IoT standards to work from?

However, to predict the future it’s often useful to look at the past, and if we look back to what happened in the mobile industry, I wonder whether the industry giants like Google, Apple and Samsung will (in the end) dominate once again.

I was in the mobile comms industry in the late 1990s to mid-2000s where hundreds of millions of dollars of VC money was pumped into companies that were creating solutions to solve problems including “sync” (the ability to sync a phone with the cloud), “monetization” (systems for enabling developers to make money from apps), “app discovery” (ways for app companies to get their apps discovered and downloaded), “mobile advertising,” “mobile music” and “mobile wallet” (ways of turning your phone into a means of payment). At the same time, there were numerous standards bodies and consortia trying to solve the same problems. I used to track all the players in the space, and my spreadsheet from 2011 showed 259 companies! (I still have the spreadsheet if you are feeling nostalgic and want to see all those names jockeying for position in mobile).

Then along came Google and Apple, and they said, “Move out of the way guys, we’ve got this covered.” They offered sophisticated app stores replete with app discovery tools, full monetization suites including in-app billing, subscriptions and advertising, and robust mature SDKs and APIs which made it easy for developers to build great apps. Their mobile platforms (Android and iOS respectively) handled sync, phone-to-cloud services, backup, speech-to-text and text-to-speech, navigation / mapping, and all those other services that we now take for granted. It’s hard to believe that just five to 10 years ago hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent by start-ups trying to solve those problems.

Comparing mobile to IoT, are we about to see the same thing happen? We have a plethora of IoT standards bodies, we have hundreds of companies getting funded, and … we have Google, Apple, Samsung and others waiting in the wings. Enter stage left, industry giants. Let’s take “connected home” as an example of what’s happening:

  • Google has been busy with the Brillo IoT operating system, the Weave IoT language/protocol, and its involvement in Thread Group via Nest. Google has learned from Android (in mobile) and Chromecast (in TV) how to use its vast resources to create a totally open ecosystem which fosters innovation and critical mass.
  • Apple is driving connectivity between devices via HomeKit. However just as in mobile, Apple’s modus operandi is to tightly control the ecosystem.
  • In the mobile industry, Samsung became the biggest mobile phone manufacturer. In IoT, Samsung sees a massive opportunity to sell billions of devices as well as move up the stack to become the glue for IoT via SmartThings.
  • Amazon missed out on mobile, but won’t miss out on connected home because its agenda is being driven by the Echo smart speaker and hub, and the Alexa voice recognition platform.
  • Microsoft never quite became mainstream in mobile after so many false starts around Windows CE, Windows Mobile and more recently Windows 10. However Microsoft cannot be dismissed in the connected home because of the widespread adoption in homes of Windows PCs and Xbox. Windows 10 IoT Edition is something to watch.

And that’s just the connected home/smart home subset of IoT. When I look at Industrial Internet/Industrial IoT, I see the same pattern of industry giants repeating itself, except the names are different. In my previous article I surveyed all the IoT standards bodies to see which industry giants are part of them, and I found that Cisco is by far the most active, followed by Intel, IBM, ARM and GE. Other major players in Industrial IoT include Honeywell, SAP and Microsoft.

In summary, here are my conclusions:

  1. Many standards bodies, many competing initiatives, yet no universal IoT standards today
  2. In defense of the IoT industry, the device and use case landscapes are very fragmented too
  3. IoT standards have the potential to cost-effectively address common challenges like security, communications protocols and data formats
  4. Although everyone accepts that wearables/smart home/connected car/smart health will all need to interconnect, Industrial Internet will probably always have separate standards (if any at all)
  5. Some giants like Cisco are hedging their bets by joining many of the organizations, others like Google and Apple are marching ahead with their own agenda and technology
  6. On a scale of “protectionism” vs. “open source,” the market will lean towards open source solutions
  7. In standards vacuums like this, history tells us that the industry giants tend to dominate in the end
  8. As we have seen in mobile, the race to standardization takes up to 20 years, and in the meantime IoT represents a huge market opportunity for technology companies to fill the standards vacuum

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