Building the tools to build the Internet of Things

Adam Dunkels, the author of the Contiki operating system and the founder of Thingsquare, is building the tools that are letting businesses ranging from crowdfunded startups to large enterprises connect thousands of devices to the Internet

Image credit: Sara Arnald.

Image credit: Sara Arnald.

"We don't have a good notion of what the Internet of Things is yet," says Adam Dunkels. It could be considered a somewhat bold statement for the Swedish computer scientist, given that the company that he's at the helm at – Thingsquare – is focussed on delivering the tools to build the IoT.

The 'Internet of Things' is a catch-all phrase used to describe the growing array of networked devices, from electricity meters to home appliances to street lighting systems, connected using the same protocols that power the Internet connections of servers and PCs.

Dunkels, Thingsquare's CEO, draws a contrast between the emerging IoT market and the established IT market: "The IT market is a very mature market. You have someone in charge of the IT system in an organisation. So you have an IT manager and an IT organisation.

"This Internet of Things is nowhere near that stage yet; it's still very, very early."

It's a good time to be in this market, just because it's still very young. We have a lot of freedom to do a lot of cool stuff. It's not locked down yet by huge market players.

However, the potential is massive. Cisco estimates that the business opportunity of what the networking giant dubs the 'Internet of Everything' is worth up to US$14.4 trillion over the next decade. The company estimates that only some 0.6 per cent of objects that may one day become part of the 'Internet of Everything' are connected to networks.

The CEO of LogMeIn, Michael Simon, whose company launched the cloud-based Xively platform for IoT applications, has described the emergence of the IoT as heralding a new wave of Internet connectivity.

"In that world, it's no longer about computers, it's no longer about people. It's literally about people and the world around them connecting," Simon said in an interview earlier this year.

"Devices, sensors, places and people... I viscerally believe it is the biggest technology market coming ever," the LogMeIn CEO said.

Related: Contiki: An operating system for the 'Internet of Things'

Dunkels founded Thingsquare in July last year. The company builds on the work Dunkels and others did on the open source Contiki operating system: An OS for low-power devices with a tiny IP stack that supports IPv6.

When Thingsquare started, "we had the Contiki OS which is great material for doing things but we didn't really have much on top of that," Dunkels says.

"We figured, let's just start building something and see what happens. And we found a lot of people who were into the same type of vision we were with Internet of Things and wanted to use the technology that we have."

Some of the fastest movers in the IoT space and some of Thingsquare's earliest customers have been startups that have produced consumer-oriented connected devices, such as Germany's tado° smart thermostat and the Wi-Fi-connected lightbulbs being produced by Melbourne-based startup LIFX.

Dunkels likens the kind of technology he and his team are working on to building a nervous system. "What we are seeing is the Internet of Things being a collection of, let's say, the fringe nodes or the nervous system, connected somehow to the brains of the Internet of Things, which would be not really located in the fringes

"It's not going to be the end nodes that are the central brain, but computers placed in data centres, in the cloud and in various places."

Thingsquare is based around delivering an end-to-end system for network-enabled devices. "From the server-side software to the device-level firmware, and everything in between there," Dunkels says.

The company has released firmware for low-powered devices that lets them form mesh networks, which means large deployments of IoT device nodes can be easily connected together, and then share a network link to the Internet or elsewhere. It released the source code to its 'Mist' system in March this year.

"All the firmware is open source, and the reason you want to have that is you want to be able to modify that completely – that's the heart of your product. It's sitting there inside the device that you're building," Dunkels says.

At the other end of the chain, Thingsquare is providing closed-source server software to provide the brains to networks of connected devices. The company is also offering this as a cloud-based service.

Initially the company had planned to provide the server-side software only as a service.

"We quickly found that the market isn't ready for that yet," Dunkels explains. "We're going to provide that both as a hosted version – as a service – and as licensed software that you install on your own server.

"It's a sign of the maturity of the market when you can have a full cloud model, and I think it's going to take a while to get there, because we haven't yet gone through the phase of having the self-hosted software yet."

He draws an analogy with the early days of the World Wide Web, before the growth of shared website hosting as a business model.

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Tags ThingsquareNetworkingInternet of ThingsContiki OSAdam Dunkels

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