The only limit to the Internet of Things isn't imagination or technology. It's the vendors. Will your Whirlpool, Maytag or GE washer be able to communicate with your Samsung TV or Apple iPhone, Sears' oven or any other device?
Without interoperability, consumer devices, electronic appliances and sensor-equipped wearables won't recognize each other and communicate. It will make scenarios, such as this one, difficult:
You walk in the door of your house from a five-mile run and biometric sensors in your clothing automatically connect to the home network. Your workout data and health information is uploaded and analyzed by a cloud-based app that may also add this data to your electronic medical records. Meanwhile, this information is also used to automatically adjust room temperature to a more comfortable-post workout setting. A stereo system suggests music to match your relaxed mood. You settle in.
Dinner goes into the oven, and the workout clothes are tossed in a washer. A TV is turned on and the room lights automatically adjust. A message appears on the TV screen alerting you that dinner is ready, and another informs you that the wash is complete. A cellphone text message from a friend inviting you to see a movie appears on any number of multiple home screens.
There is no consumer electronics vendor large enough to force the interoperability that can do all the things in that scenario. But there are vendors large enough to frustrate the path to it by building an Internet of Things mostly around their products.
Into this electronics disconnect steps the open source industry, which believes it has the method, the process and the clout to drive the electronics industry toward a true interoperability. But does it?
We may know in less than 12 months -- at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) next January -- whether an effort by the Linux Foundation to bring interoperability to the Internet of Things is going anywhere.
In December, the Linux Foundation, a non-profit consortium that promotes Linux adoption, created the AllSeen Alliance. It took a code stack developed by Qualcomm called the AllJoyn Framework and put it under its open-source umbrella.
This C++ code supports the major operating systems, chipsets and embedded variants. Any electronics or appliance maker, or even an LED light bulb maker that uses the AllJoyn code will have a basis for connectivity with another product that also uses the code.
At the 2015 CES you may see, if all goes well, marks on various electronics indicating their use of AllSeen. There may even be Intel Inside-like stickers on products.
Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, believes that AllSeen will be adopted by vendors.
For vendors that want connectivity, the question is simple: Do device and appliance makers want to write software for every single product or smartphone "or do they just want to go download this code and put it into their product and know that it's taken care of?"
Having such code available will deliver the network effect and propel device interoperability, said Zemlin. "You are going to see a lot of products this year with this code in it," he said.
The AllSeen Alliance launched with major vendor support, including LG Electronics, Panasonic, Sharp, Qualcomm, AT&T Digital Life, and others. But Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, says what's missing in Linux Foundation's effort is the support of the mega-vendors like Samsung and Apple.
"The guys who are dominating the market are unfortunately not the guys who are jumping on this particular bandwagon," said Enderle.
Samsung likes products to work with its products, said Enderle. "When you are dominant, you don't like this stuff (open standards) because it lets other people into your market," he said.
Enderle says the major electronics firms won't use AllSeen unless one of three things happens: They are forced to interoperability by some government action; they stop being dominant; or consumers insist on it. "One of those elements has to be in place before some of these big guys will move," he said.
There is nothing like a Microsoft in the electronics world, no company that could through sheer market power, manage to set a global document standard. But open source is another matter.
Linux dominates high performance computing, and Linux OS-based servers, thanks to cloud providers, are rapidly gaining in market share. Open source systems, such as Hadoop, are critical in Big Data, an essential part of the Internet of Things.
"Open source has an important role to play, and the earlier that's acknowledged and facilitated, I think that's better for everyone," said Andrew Aitken, managing director of Black Duck Consulting, which is part of Black Duck Software.
Aitken said the industry is past the point where a single firm can gain control.
"When you have a Cisco and Qualcomm on one end and Nike, GE and similar (firms) at the other end of the stack, there are too many significant players for one to dominate," said Aitken. But that might not necessarily be true for vertical industry.
Aiken believes much of the the success of the AllSeen Alliance will depend on its governance, and an ability to be inclusive.
But on the importance of open source, Aitken says its stakeholders "span industries and cross international borders" and it represents the best approach for creating an Internet of Things.
In a paper he wrote on the role of open source in the Internet of Things, Aitken said that without open source, the result may be "a market that caters only to hobbyists and select wealthy homeowners, and a fragmented lackluster landscape."
Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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