Internet of Things — The Space Junk Challenge


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As we power on towards the new and exciting future the Internet of Things (IoT) promises, I’m reminded of the single greatest issue we all face, more challenging than the networks, more problematic than the security challenges, and certainly more likely to impact adoption than user acceptance.


That challenge is single function platforms or devices. Consumers are unlikely to be willing to carry or use more than 3 to 5 independent devices, especially wearable devices. For example, I use a smartphone, a wrist based activity tracker, and a small form laptop, and I refuse to drag more than this collection around with me, and I’m confident this is par for the course for most of us.


So what does this mean for the immediate short to medium term future of IoT offerings, well for one thing it means that the bulk of gadgets aimed at consumers in particular will if we don’t address this issue, be bound for a sad and lonely early death so many early “rushed to market” devices experience, and by that I mean they get shoved in a draw somewhere and forgotten.


Early IoT platforms could easily be compared to early satellites which all too soon turned into space junk. The earth is surrounded by countless man made devices which were built for a single purpose. Later generation satellites are designed to provide multiple functions, but early platforms both civilian and military were single purpose and often single use, after which they simply drifted around our planet awaiting a fiery death burning up re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.


We’ve actually faced this challenge in the technology sector before a number of times, and one example which comes to mind was not that long ago. I’m talking about early versions of the Electronic Funds Transfer Point of Sale devices (EFTpos) such as in-store terminals and Automatic Teller Machines (ATM).


Early generations of ETFpos devices such as ATM’s and store counter card reading terminals only ran one merchant app, usually it was hardwire into the device either flashed into an EEPROM BIOS or an ASIC of some form, and they were closed systems. This meant that if your local store owner wished to provid EFTpos facilities, the card reader terminal from their bank would only allow you to use an EFTpos debit card, and that was it.


Over time merchants like American Express, MasterCard and Visa extended the capabilities of EFTpos terminals and supplied the enhanced terminals to merchants to include access to credit, and debit cards, usually with lower fees as incentives to drive sales over their platform. Some in time even allowed a “cash out” facility, where you could take cash out of your bank account as part of your in-store purchase.


The “cash out” feature quickly became popular as it could save you a trip to your bank’s nearest ATM machine, i.e. if you purchased $10 worth of product, you could take $50 out in cash and the merchant debited $60 from your bank account via your EFTpos card. Some even went so far as to allow “cash in advance” withdrawals from credit cards.


At the time this all sounded very exciting and baring the minority who either didn’t trust EFTpos or the elderly who didn’t understand the technology, consumers rushed to adopt the all new and exciting convenience of the promise of a supposedly cashless society EFTpos offered.


Before long though, merchant counters were littered with a colourful array of multiple vendors EFTpos terminals, some for credit cards, some for debit cards, some for mobile phone account top-up services. Others integrated frequent flyer points rewards, and some even featured store loyalty programmes and the list goes on. My local petrol station peaked at nine terminals no less, on their shop-front counter at one point, and I’ve heard stories of even more in some retail outlets where dedicated EFTpos checkout counters were setup.


But this just wasn’t sustainable, something had to change, and it did, and the change was dramatic and in some ways it saved the EFTpos industry.


In 2004 I was lucky enough to play a lead role in a joint venture between Westpac Banking Corporation, Keycorp, a leading EFTpos platform provider, and Fox Technology, a niche banking systems software developer, to complete the design, build, testing and full scale production implementation of a world leading project which brought about a paradigm shift from single app EFTpos terminal platforms, to an open multi-app multi-provider solution.


In less than six months, we turned the EFTpos terminal game on it’s head, and successfully developed a new EEPROM flashed BIOS and Java VM based operating system for the existing EFTpos terminal without changing the base card reader terminal hardware in any way. We transformed dumb ETFpos terminals into smart terminals capable of offering unlimited features through apps, almost in the same fashion smartphones do today.


The solution was to allow the terminal to download Java applets on demand (i.e. over dial-up, IDSN or fixed line links to the data center) which instantly turned a single app terminal to an open unlimited app platform. By simply entering a URL to the required app in the terminal menu, you could add a new feature or function in mere seconds.


The control, admin and management along with the hosting and application maintenance was all driven by a cloud like back end hosted in a data center, with multiple routes from the terminals to the back end, including PSTN dial-up into analogue and digital modem pools, dial-up and fixed ISDN, dedicated WAN links, VPN tunnels over private and public networks and even Internet routed TCP/IP sessions.


In many ways we had built a cloud computing solution, but that term hadn’t made its way into common language at that stage. The overall architecture was open, and extensible, so much so, that over a decade later, the same design and platform remains in use and has been patented, licensed and sold around the world, and remains one of the most rewarding business and technology challenges of my working life.


I see many parallels appearing with the immediate future of IoT the challenge, where individual device designers, builders, and manufacturers are racing to gain a foothold in the land-grab of the decade, more often than not without a long term view of what happens when consumers end up with too many devices and a consumer revolt takes place, and so many great new gadgets end up being tossed in a drawer, to end up as a blip in the IoT timeline, but never to be used again.


So how do we avoid such a horrible outcome, actually the answer is relatively straightforward in my mind, and it’s the same solution as the EFTpos example I gave. IoT devices have to be open and able to host or run multiple applications or services, and designers, and manufacturers need to urgently come together and develop open standards, API’s and the like at a platform level.


By platform I mean everything from the data center, network, right through to security, access and the in-device code or appliations, or business logic. The smartphone industry is probably the best example of a working model for this in fact.


The current leading platforms, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Adroid have despite various challenges, offered open platforms where independent app developers with no investment in the hosting hardware, operating system, networks, security, payment gateways, commerce engines, or back end data center infrastructure, can easily author a new app, and have it published and running on both smartphone platforms quickly and relatively painlessly.


Very few of us managed to avoid the Angry Birds app regardless of which smartphone platform we chose, and the developers didn’t have to invest a single cent in infrastructure to reach hundreds of millions of consumers hell bent on world domination via slingshot propelled avian missiles.


I firmly believe that if the whole IoT industry as a whole, and the consumers who are ready willing and able to buy the things we make, are to succeed in our efforts to fulfil the promise IoT is making, it will not be through single use devices running single feature apps, but rather multi-use platforms, running multiple apps, interchangeable by the consumer / user at ease, quickly, simply, securely, and at will or on demand, and in a cloud computing “consumption” or “utility cost” model, i.e. only pay for what you use.


How do we make this happen? That’s the theme of another blog post, so stay tuned for the next installment.


If you are an IoT developer or platform provider, or you’re involved in any related or associated initiatives and would like to discuss this whole topic further, I’d love to hear from you.


Dez Blanchfield heads up Digital Transformation, Cloud Computing, Big Data and Analytics at The Frame Group in Australia.



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