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Can we talk? Internet of Things vendors face a communications 'mess'

Patrick Thibodeau | April 21, 2014
Vendors will tell you that the Internet of Things (IoT) has arrived. We're here to tell you that it hasn't.

Vendors will tell you that the Internet of Things (IoT) is here today. We're here to tell you that it isn't.

This is your warning label. It's the small print on the prescription that outlines all the nasty complications.

The first thing to realize is that many wireless communications protocols that allow home devices to exchange information aren't interoperable.

Second, installing a home automation system will likely require investments in bridges, which are separate pieces of hardware that connect with home routers. But in time, this may be an unnecessary expense.

Third, the market is filled with vendors taking shots at one another's wireless technology. There will likely be some disruption as protocols are sorted out and settled on.

Behind the scenes, groups and vendors are promoting a range of machine-to-machine wireless communication protocols, including Z-Wave, ZigBee, Insteon, Bluetooth Low Energy and new arrivals such as the Weightless standard. These are protocols that enable devices, light bulbs, thermostats, door locks, wireless speakers, security systems, lawn sprinklers and sensors of all kinds to talk with one another.

Features these wireless protocols all have in common are low energy and low bandwidth requirements, the goal being to extend battery life for as long as years. Most use mesh networks that enable devices to pass signals to one another, extending network range, reliability and redundancy. Wi-Fi is a big part of this, too, and cellular technology will be as well. Each has role to play in connecting things.

We're still in the early days of the IoT and, to be fair, it's important to note that device makers are being forced to make bets in an immature environment. But at this point, no one has made a bad bet.

For instance, in 2009, Schlage introduced a wireless locking system with a clever TV commercial showing a man using a BlackBerry to unlock his front door while he was miles away from his home.

Schlage developed its innovative locking system after realizing that the locks of today will not be the locks of tomorrow. That development effort led to a later spin-off, Nexia Home Intelligence.

There are now more than 200 home products that can be controlled through Nexia's bridge. Those products rely on wireless communications protocols that use a bridge or a hub to connect to a home network router. The bridge makes it possible for people in or out of the house to monitor and control devices via smartphones or PCs. The Nexia Bridge retails for about $60 and requires a subscription that costs $9.99 a month.

Nexia supports Wi-Fi and Z-Wave, a technology the company believes is best for its deployments. That means that people whose homes have products that use ZigBee, for instance, will need a separate bridge.


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