The Bigger Picture

The value of the network, whether for websites or smart homes, continues to grow; yet so do related technical and societal challenges. What should we focus on now to tackle challenges and maximize value?

How has the world changed?

Back in the early 80’s, Robert Metcalfe theorized that the value of a network was proportional to the square of the number of connected users of a system. His initial research was based on fax machines and that a fax machine that can’t connect with another is basically useless. Its value increases with the number of fax machines with which it can communicate. Later in 2013, he again visited the topic and found that after analyzing Facebook data, the math still held true. For the lay person, this means the more the network grows, the more we’ll see exponential gains in usefulness for users and in business benefit for those who monetize networks.

Today, we are seeing the same evolution of Metcalfe’s Law playing out in the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT). The value of smart thermostats, door locks or light bulbs has a certain limited application on its own. But what would happen if they could each interconnect, extending the network to new nodes, creating exponential value?

Just as the Internet evolved from point-to-point communications from a single researcher sharing content with a peer via the network, the IoT is still in its infancy. The truth is that we are only beginning to scratch the surface of the IoT’s potential value, though we are seeing fast-emerging areas of promise. And this goes well beyond consumer applications in the smart home, with equal or greater potential in commercial applications.

Change creates challenge.

The challenge of building out the IoT to its potential is twofold. What is the value and what are the corresponding economics? Some of us are old enough to remember the $1,500 cellular bag phone and dollar per minute rates – and those phones didn’t even have cameras, GPS, or touch screens. It wasn’t until the price of a phone came down to accessible levels and rates for use became more affordable that wireless phone networks and services began to truly take off. We’re at a similar inflection point in the IoT today, where consumer adoption is somewhat hampered by the cost and complexity of smart home features compared to their perceived current value.

The plot thickens when we consider issues of privacy and security the interconnection of billions of devices can potentially create. The questions around privacy and security are even more pervasive than when the Internet started as social media adds fuel to the fire. Often the perception is that a company’s main drive is to learn more about the individual so they can exploit that information for commercial benefit.

It’s clear that no one company can achieve the promise of the IoT while addressing the issues of interoperability balanced by inherent privacy and security. There is a critical need for an advocate. Not just for manufacturers of IoT hardware. Not just for companies seeking privacy and security solutions. And, not just for consumers. What’s required is a holistic approach to balance the needs of all key stakeholders if we’re truly going to end up with an IoT for everyone.

Tackling the challenge

In March of last year, the Zigbee Alliance changed its name to the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA) to reflect its position more accurately as a trusted advocate for a safe, interconnected IoT that could potentially deliver the benefits of Metcalfe’s Law. As an organization, our board of directors and leadership have recognized the responsibility inherent in building this foundation for the Internet of Things and began a leadership series called HIVE to precisely do that, by looking at not just delivering today’s technical specifications, but by asking the larger questions. That approach has yielded important steps forward in both ensuring this group of companies has a solid, well-focused mission in service to consumers, stakeholders and innovators, and in building the products and services that make it all work.

We have quietly corralled nearly 500 global tech companies who in turn are lending thousands of engineers to solve the problems associated with an open, interoperable, and ubiquitous IoT. These companies share their talent and intellectual property to improve IoT device interoperability, and bring valuable lessons learned from IP-based Internet security and apply them to the IoT. For 20 years the organization has evolved its standards-based approach using Zigbee to enable wireless mesh routers to extend networks throughout the home and commercial sites allowing them to operate smarter and more efficiently.

Last spring, the Alliance announced the brand of its latest new IoT protocol called Matter. So why does Matter, matter? It has the ability to create a layer of communication that allows a device from one company to interoperate with devices made by other, often competitive, companies. The goal is to increase adoption of the smart home (and smart commercial applications) around the world and ultimately make the experience exponentially better for consumers and developers.

How is the Alliance doing that? By creating a specification, certification process, testing tools and a software development kit (SDK) for Matter that is stable, deployable at scale and meets market expectations for quality and interoperability. The plan is to be ready by the fall of 2022. That may seem a way off, but manufacturers of IoT devices are already creating product that will be upgradeable – meaning a substantial number of devices will already be in the wild by the time the standard has evolved.

The Alliance enjoys the participation of some of the largest global tech heavyweights alongside start-ups, mid-tier and niche players ensuring a broad perspective and diverse participation. In fact, when looking at Alliance company participation, the geographic split is generally equal parts from the Americas, EMEA and China/APJ. To ensure one company’s voice does not drown out another, each gets one vote when making decisions about the evolving standard. Basically, a United Nations of IoT standards development.

Also at play is the Alliance’s use of events like the HIVE summit that bring together global IoT executives with a stated mission of having an open dialogue to define solution paths for key areas of the IoT that need additional leadership attention. Matter itself was conceived at a HIVE event in 2017 where the discussion culminated with a need to create an IP-based unifying standard. In about a week from now, HIVE 2022 will convene with goals of determining the next consumer needs in IoT, building trust through security and greater control for new ways of living.

What is at stake?

So, what is the cost if we as an industry aren’t successful in creating a safe, reliable, global, and interoperable IoT? In short, you’d be looking at the tower of Babel where IoT devices only work with the offerings of a single company. Want to shop for what you consider a best-in-class security system that talks to a thermostat, intelligent landscape lighting and a wireless speaker? Good luck. That ship won’t sail for another 10-15 years if a single, open, and standards-based communication protocol isn’t achieved. Thinking that we’ll just solve it all in the cloud? Good luck with that without edge security and privacy.

Without this effort succeeding, expect to be locked into one provider, with higher prices, less innovation and slower speed-to-market, with no incentives for small companies to proceed and win in the marketplace.

Just like a $1,500 bag phone and dollar a minute rates, nobody really wants that. The time is right to come together, and we’ve never been in a better place to do that.

About the author:

As the President and CEO of the Connectivity Standards Alliance, Tobin Richardson is on a mission to simplify and harmonize the Internet of Things (IoT) through open, global standards and by creating a place where the world’s leaders and innovators across the industry can work together.