Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Internet of Things

After watching the complete Apple WWDC (World Wide Developer Conference) presentations yesterday, I’m excited about the prospects for the notion called the “Internet of Things.” This is the “electronic home.”

It’s like those ads you see on TV where the guy remotely shuts off the television, turns out the lights, and locks the door that his son had carelessly left on or unlocked. I have a limited version at my home now. I can check and adjust my furnace and A/C from anywhere in the world using an app on my iPhone. If the system should experience a failure or malfunction, it will send me an email to alert me. I also have some Philips "Hue" LED lights that connect through my router, and I can control them via iPhone too.

In Apple’s announcements yesterday they included the new iOS 8 SDK (Software Development Kit — a set of software development tools). This is stunning. This version opens up more than 4,000 APIs for third-party developers. In parallel, Apple rolled out new frameworks called "HealthKit" and "HomeKit." The HealthKit APIs, according to Apple, provide the ability for health and fitness apps to communicate with each other. The HomeKit "delivers a common protocol, secure pairing and the ability to easily control individual or groups of devices throughout the house including integration with Siri," said the company.

An “API” is an application program interface. These are connections into the operating system services for use by application programs or “apps.” An API can be used to read or write data or request services written into the OS. These new APIs are largely interfaces to specific services and functions that would be useful for home automation and health devices. This includes wireless communications, alerts and messages, as well as display functions and security features. Having common OS functions and services available reduces the amount of effort required by application programmers and assures consistency and security as well as robust operations to be implemented simply and with minimum code.

The common thread here is Apple's aggressive software strategy, designed to court a million more developers, while signing up system and IC (integrated circuits or “chips”) vendors to design solutions "made for iOS devices.” Apple's action of opening up so many new APIs at once unprecedented. No other operating system companies, including Google or Microsoft, have ever done it. When Microsoft first released its .NET framework for Windows in 2002 with version 1.0, it wasn’t until version 4.0, ten years later, that a complete framework API set was available.

Development of .NET actually began in 1990 with the so called “Next Generation Windows Services,” so the process was very drawn out and evolutionary.

Apple intends these frameworks to be more revolutionary.

As Apple guns for a big stake in technology for monitoring health and home, chip companies including Marvell, Broadcom, and Texas Instruments are looking to piggyback on the Apple campaign. The three IC vendors were listed on a slide shown on the stage at Apple's World Wide Developers Conference, as the companies supporting Apple's HomeKit. Of the three, Marvell became the first to launch a host of new Internet of Things System on a Chip (SoCs) made for Apple’s iOS devices. These are the “brains” of the appliances that will connect to the iPhone for control, programming, and monitoring. Your new toaster may have more computer power than the lunar landing craft did in 1969 thanks to built-in SoCs.

Marvell is rolling out three separate versions of its Internet of Things SoCs — for WiFi, Bluetooth, and ZigBee — by tightly coupling a Muli-point Control Unit with each wireless chip, together with power management and memory on a single die. Marvell’s solutions come with what the company calls "EZ-connect" software enabling end systems to implement various HomeKit-specific protocols. These chips could be included in everything from your refrigerator to your furnace and home lights. The clincher: Marvell’s Internet of Things SoCs are already MFi (Made For iPhone/iPad) certified, a process controlled by Apple.

Of course, suppliers of Internet of Things devices — lightbulbs, thermostats, door locks, sprinklers, home appliances, and healthcare devices — will still need to go through Apple's MFi certification process on a system level. But with Marvell having done its MFi homework, system vendors are expected to find it a snap to get the MFi seal of approval from Apple and connect their finished products with iOS devices. Having Apple’s certificate of approval will assure customers of quality, compatibility, and even security.

For those not familiar, ZigBee is a specification for a suite of high level communication protocols used to create personal area networks built from small, low-power digital radios. ZigBee is based on an IEEE 802.15 standard. Though low-powered, ZigBee devices can transmit data over long distances by passing data through intermediate devices to reach more distant ones, creating a mesh network; that is, a network with no centralized control or high-power transmitter / receiver able to reach all of the networked devices. ZigBee is intended for networks with low data rate communications and is perfect for home automation. The name refers to the waggle dance of honey bees after their return to the beehive. Home entertainment system control, smoke detectors, and burglar alarm sensors are common applications.

Armed with hundreds of millions of iTune accounts already held by consumers who trust Apple with their account payment information, Apple hopes to milk that bond assuming consumers will trust Apple to accurately identify that the thermostat and doorbell are indeed theirs and theirs alone. Security is paramount in the way Apple is deploying the HomeKit. It is also my greatest personal concern for the home automation allows the opportunity for the bad guys to “hack your home.”

Since some Internet of Things devices are too small to incorporate an LED or a display, Apple's iPhone comes in handy as the indispensable screen to set up Internet of Things devices and automatically connect them to the home network. But the raison d'être of Apple's HomeKit isn't just about turning an iPhone or iPad into the smart home's all-purpose remote control.

Apple's HomeKit framework helps users create and set up a specific "scene," according to Apple. For example, users can turn the home network into a "night mode" so that lighting throughout the home can be turned off and locks turned on. When a "vacation mode" kicks in, lighting could get randomly turned on and off, a sprinkler is switched on at a scheduled time, and the motion sensor system is triggered.

By promoting a common protocol for home automation devices and making a public API available for configuring and communicating with those devices, Apple is making the home network easy for both users and system vendors.

Without the HomeKit framework, the application that users would need to control their appliances, for example, must be independently created by an individual system vendor. And it would be too time consuming for consumers to create a specific use-case that must be applied to individual devices.

The MFi scheme would place no limits to the type of wireless connectivity necessary for each Internet of Things device. If it's a door lock, it probably makes sense to use Bluetooth Smart, because of its proximity use-case scenario. For a washing machine — or any other appliance plugged into a wall socket — adding WiFi enables each machine to communicate with cloud services through the home network, sending an alert if it breaks down. If light bulbs are set up as part of the network, ZigBee would be the choice of wireless technology.

Currently, iPhones aren't equipped with ZigBee. However, ZigBee is just a wireless protocol. Many radios can be software configured for the data rate of ZigBee for MFi-based networks. My Philips LED lights use a control box on the network that talks to the lights, and receives input from the iPhone over my WiFi network. We are not talking continuous audio, we are talking the 'washing machine-is-done' level bursts, or 'lower-thermostat-and-verify-command' receipt. MFi could also support novel communication protocols, wired and wireless — possibly also light and laser modulation and receiving. You just need a WiFi bridge.

This is the dawn of a new age. Remember the first time you saw VisiCalc? The first time you used email? Your first cell phone? This is the dawning of a new age. It is coming. It may be the next big thing. I can hardly wait. Then again, with the very real security concerns of twenty-first century living, maybe we should be careful before we go back to the future.

We are living in the future I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper fifteen years ago
We're all driving rocket ships and talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry and standing in soup lines
We are standing in soup lines, we are standing in soup lines


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