Best Practice: Interoperability is the New Paradigm

One of the overwhelming trends on the home technology front is the ever building march of partnerships between companies driven by the potential interoperability brought about with APIs in the IoT world. We used to call these joined up systems ‘Systems Integration’, and that phrase is still a mainstay of many a company’s strap line.

Aylett 0216 NestAs an industry we are at the tipping point between the old world of the control systems we know, mostly love, and still make profit on, and the new world of interoperable systems. Currently, neither offers the perfect solution. The innovation evident in products coming out of new IoT focussed startups is staggering with functionality that simply cannot be replicated within current control platforms.

The other side of the coin is, of course, the question of reliability and resilience where the old world still reigns supreme, albeit in a slightly staid and stagnant way. These two worlds, separated by a shark-infested ocean and high barbed wire fences need to acknowledge each others existence, form partnerships and reinvigorate a market that is in danger of tipping towards a largely DIY-driven, unreliable landscape of users frustrated that their systems don’t work quite as well as expected.

It is important that as an industry we track these new technologies and partnerships so we can best understand how to deliver true innovation to our customers. Here’s an overview of some to keep and eye on.

Networking and Physical Layer Technologies
The networking and physical layers are technologies that allow devices to physically communicate with each other using a set of protocols supported by all the devices. These protocols are generally open, in that any company can adopt them (by paying a license fee to an organisation, or by purchasing the chip sets from a partner company).

For linking up control devices and sensors, these technologies are ideal because they are low power, low latency (the time it takes between an input and a corresponding action) and secure. They do not, however, have enough bandwidth to stream media such as music or movies. To do that wirelessly, you will still need to implement a very robust Wi-Fi network

Established Technologies
Z-Wave and Zigbee are both established technologies widely used by integration companies. Be aware, however, that just because a product is marked as being Z-wave or Zigbee compatible does not give you much information about the functionality that is available. The advice is always to prototype the system back at your offices to explore functionality, iron out bugs and ensure that when you install the product into someone’s building that you know it’s going to do what you expect.

New Kids on the Block
Bluetooth Smart/Bluetooth LE has emerged as a real competitor to the above established technologies. Its unique selling point is that mobile devices with Bluetooth 4.0 will be able to communicate directly to other connected devices. The next generation of Bluetooth Smart devices will support mesh topologies thus increasing range to a whole building scale by making use of multiple ‘hops’ between devices.

6LoWPAN is an encapsulation mechanism that allows IPv6 packets to be sent over an 802.15.4 network. 802.15.4 is the basis for many other specifications including Zigbee and Thread (see below).

API-Driven Ecosystems
With the physical and network layers being defined by relatively open technologies as described above, individual manufacturers are capitalising on these by then introducing closed software ecosystems that allow compatible devices to be interoperable with little or no intervention or programming needed from the end user. The trend here is partnerships between companies.

Smart Things is samsung’s ecosystem. It is built around a hub, which connects all the Smart Things devices and sensors in a building, with the buildings Ethernet and Wi-Fi network.

HomeKit is Apple’s great hope in the automation and control marketplace. Though it made a slow start, it is now getting more traction with an increasing amount of partners companies and products.

Thread is another newcomer that arrived in mid-2015 and uses 6LoWPAN. Unlike Samsung and Apple, who are trying to entice you to purchase their profitable phones, Thread is an association of many different companies. Its Board of Directors reads like a who’s who of significant technology companies.

‘Works With’. You’ve probably all seen the logo ‘Works With Nest’ on products. As the ultimate expression of interoperability, this is only the beginning of our industry being dominated by a multitude of ‘Works With’ partnerships. A significant product that is currently dominating the ‘works with’ trend is Amazon’s Echo, which although it is not available yet in Europe, is making big waves in The US with its voice-controlled UI. As with all these technologies, take the ‘Works With’ label with a pinch of salt and always prototype your solutions.

We’ve only brushed the surface here looking at the brave new world of interoperable systems. The reality of the next few years is that these device ecosystems will begin to dominate control and automation in buildings. We are at a tipping point where, to succeed in delivering compelling experiences to our customers, we must begin to acknowledge this future and understand the technology landscape that is driving change.

Peter Aylett is a world-renowned speaker and lecturer in residential technology, and the Technical Director at Archimedia, a multinational high-end residential integrator in The Middle East. He is also currently Chair of CEDIA’s International Technology Council Applied Content Action Team, and a regular contributor to HiddenWiresFeel free to comment on his article, below.