The creator of the open-source Spark Core hopes it becomes the heart of an open Internet of Things. The creator of the open-source Spark Core hopes it becomes the heart of an open Internet of Things.
For many of us old enough to remember, the early days of life online had little to do with the internet. Before we browsed the open web, we dialed into Prodigy or CompuServe or AOL with a 1400-baud telephone modem. Once connected to a particular service, we used its proprietary software to play inside its members-only club, and we couldn’t visit any other service. We lacked a certain amount of freedom. One of my earliest cyber-memories: getting my mom’s AOL account suspended by the moderator of a chat room I was trolling.
By today’s standards, such a tightly controlled experience seems quaint—and pretty silly. But that early-’90s scenario could very well repeat itself today, with the so-called Internet of Things. Yes, this vast array of smart devices will all be connected to the public internet, but they may already be evolving in a way where they can’t all talk to each other, where one set of devices is cut off from another, just as AOL was cut off from Prodigy or CompuServe in a pre-web version of proprietary wishful thinking.
The Internet of Things only really makes sense as a concept if lots of devices can talk to lots of very different devices—your car to your thermostat, your fitness band to your coffee maker. Few hardware makers would openly disagree with that premise. But at the same time, corporate tech giants are racing to create competing standards through which devices will connect, and these are, in effect, the AOLs and CompuServes of today.
Some thinkers, however, are working to avoid such a scenario. This includes Zach Supalla, the founder and CEO of a startup called Spark. This week, Spark released a new service that aims bring all devices together, in much the same way the web brought all late 20th-century PCs and laptops together through the browser, as a kind of operating system for interconnected devices. The idea, Supalla says, is to create a platform that lets companies create new devices without worrying about which standard, if any, will win out. “We don’t want to lock people in and replace one kind of risk with a different kind of risk,” Supalla says.
Many companies may say they want disparate devices to talk with each other. But sometimes, their actions and their words don’t quite line up. Just yesterday, some of the world’s biggest IT companies announced the creation of the “Open Interconnect Consortium,” an effort to create open-source specifications for how devices will interact. Though an open-source initiative sounds ideal for avoiding the dreaded “walled garden,” the project actually pits the consortium’s members—Dell, Intel, and Samsung among them—against the AllSeen Alliance, another open-source project built around QualComm technology and whose members include Microsoft and Cisco.
As these projects wind their way through their respective corporate bureaucracies, the makers of connected devices already on the market are trying to define their own standards by getting their devices into people’s homes, cars, and offices first. Google-owned Nest is the most visible of these competitors, with its smart thermostat and smoke alarm. Century-old Honeywell, maker of the iconic round thermostat, is offering its own internet-connected climate control systems. Apple recently unveiled HomeKit, its own protocol for connecting devices to its hardware, which happens to be supported by Honeywell. And the General Electric-backed startup Wink just unveiled a hub for connecting smart-home devices to one another.
With so many efforts from so many heavyweights, the idea of any interconnection standard emerging seems very far off. But there is at least some hope of skipping past a period of AOL-style closed systems. Internet companies in the 21st century owe much of their success to the wise deployment of APIs—open channels that allow online apps and services to connect with one another. As a result, services like Facebook and Twitter became platforms for other apps, rather than evolving in isolation. This phenomenon can help the Internet of Things as well.
Late last month, Nest announced its own API for connecting all kinds of devices and apps not just to its hardware but to the data that hardware generates. HomeKit and Wink are variations on the same theme, though so far without their own hardware. The thing to realize here is that, for the Internet of Things to work as promised, various devices don’t really have to talk to each other natively. They just need the right translator—the right software APIs. Even then, the big question remains: which company’s software will become the standard bearer? But maybe the answer doesn’t ultimately matter—at least, not if a truly open-ended operating system can tie all the APIs together.
That’s the solution favored by Spark’s Supalla. Yesterday, he and his company released Spark Core, an open-source micro controller and Wi-Fi module intended for use at the heart of connected-device prototypes. But the bigger news may be the introduction of Spark’s new cloud service, a way for hardware devices to connect with others via their various APIs. In theory, it will let tinkerers and hardware startups connect their devices to all competing services without worrying which one will win out.
To aid its interconnective aspirations, Spark recently secured nearly $5 million in financing. But its business model doesn’t depend on making itself the preferred protocol to the exclusion of others. Instead, Supalla hopes that product developers who use Spark’s Core, or even their own hacked version, will pay for access to its cloud out of convenience and usability.
If Supalla’s idea works—and hardware makers are smart enough to open up their devices through robust APIs—Spark’s cloud service doesn’t have to be anywhere near the only option, just as the web itself lives on innumerable servers and services. The key point is to ensure that the better paradigm prevails. For the Internet of Things, as with the entire internet itself, it’s not the nodes that matter. It’s the network. “Today, there aren’t enough things on the market to worry about intercompatibility, but there will be five years from now,” Supalla says. And if we do right, he says, “all of the sudden these products stop looking like hardware and start behaving a little more like software.”