Why open source matters to the IoT market

With everything becoming connected through IoT, security will be key to its success. And the best way to secure a system is to allow anybody to inspect the code and contribute a patch


Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

The Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to become a $4-11 trillion market by 2025, contributing 11% to the global economy, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report, The Internet of Things: Mapping the value beyond the hype.

IoT is about connecting sensors and devices to the Internet, collecting their data and automating processes and decision-making. It touches almost every industry and will soon be in your house, your office, your company, your city, your country and your planet.

IoT, however, does face a host of issues—lack of standards being a big one. Remember the days when there was no standard USB phone charger and every phone manufacturer chose its “own standard”? The Internet and mobile have evolved rapidly because they are built on open standards and often open source standards. IoT is being held back due to the lack of standards. Devices are generating data in proprietary ways, which can’t be easily shared with other devices. Hence, no synergetic actions can be taken.

Security is another issue. In mid-2015, a connected car got hacked and the two hackers were able to take full control of the car—the steering, brakes and even its engine. With everything becoming connected through IoT, security will be key for IoT to be successful in the long term. IoT will continue to require better security solutions than what is currently available. The best way to secure a system is to allow anybody to inspect the code and contribute a patch. Closed source is just hiding problems, not making solutions more secure. Through open source more eyes can look at the code and solve any security issues.

IoT is currently a collection of technical solutions for an unvalidated set of customer problems. Years ago people would ask: “Why do I need a smartphone?” Angry Birds, WhatsApp, Pokémon GO, and many other apps have had an enormous effect on what we do with a phone. Most of us only make calls a fraction of the time we spend on our phones.

We don’t know what an Angry Birds or Pokémon GO equivalent for a fridge, a robot, a drone, a router, etc, looks like. However, by providing an app-based infrastructure, we make it easy for software developers to create apps that can derive much more value from any smart device.

App stores on devices will help us find the IoT Pokémon GO for lots of new smart devices. By open sourcing the technology to app-enable any type of smart device, we are accelerating this discovery process. Any enterprise will be able to run its own app store.

Today we can start IoT-enabling devices around us but managing large deployments of devices is hard.

You can’t go to a PC model where you are expected to take actions, like cleaning up disk space, to keep things going smoothly. Devices that are connected to the Internet will need software upgrades when security bugs are discovered. You will not want these upgrades to fail and stop the device from working. Even if the device is cheap, digging a hole in the street to get a device out of the ground or getting scaffolding to get if off the roof means the price of the device will be irrelevant if a software update fails.

By open sourcing a solution for transactional updates, any update that fails can be easily rolled back to the last working version. This will allow any developer, device manufacturer and enterprise to focus their efforts on solving real customer problems and not reinventing the wheel.

To give you an example, today every large building has IP (Internet protocol) security cameras. The only intelligence these cameras have is that they can sense motion. They will send everything they see to a central system where somebody needs to check the streams manually. All data will be recorded but finding that one image that matters is still really hard.

By app-enabling IP security cameras and providing them with trained artificial intelligence (AI) models, IP cameras will be able to recognise the person, animal or object in front of them. A rabbit on the grass can be ignored. An unknown person in the middle of the night generates a potential security alert. A known criminal with a weapon will make sure the police gets automatically warned.

IoT will initially be used to reduce costs. Smart meters will negotiate with power generation companies when electricity is cheapest. Home appliances like washing and drying machines will choose the most economical times to wash and dry your clothes. Your house will know you are home and it will make sure the temperature and ambiance is just the way you like it. Your house will not waste energy on warming or cooling when you are not home. In the office technicians will come and fix the copier before it breaks. Industrial 3D (three-dimensional) printers will print substitution parts when they are needed.

The mid- and long-term IoT future will, however, bring more change. Autonomous cars will be rented, not owned. Owning a car means you have it parked 95% of the time. If the same car can be used to transport many people on the same day, personal transport-as-a-service will cost a fraction of the cost of owning a car. You also won’t need city parking.

Vending machines can have app stores, iris scanners, touch screens, and more. All of a sudden you can use a vending machine to make an international money transfer to family on the other side of the world. An app-enabled MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner will look for thousands of symptoms categorized by the health risks based on your DNA profile.

Automatic sewing robots will make personalised clothes that you can try on before they exist via digital mirrors and augmented reality. Your city will pick up your garbage when it is full and you will only pay for what you waste, all done by autonomous trucks.

When the world was affected by the Y2K (Year 2000) problem, India was safe as it didn’t have a lot of the legacy mainframes and mini computers which were affected. India has the same advantage today with IoT. The country doesn’t have many IoT deployments, so it can choose the right approach before any deployment happens.

India is able to choose open source and open standards when deploying IoT. This will give India huge advantages today and help prevent future problems. India has one of the most tech-savvy populations. Cheap hardware like Raspberry Pi will allow Indian start-ups and enterprises to dream up new IoT solutions without breaking the bank.

By using open source IoT app standards, Indian entrepreneurs will be able to sell their IoT apps globally. App store customers can run these apps on any type of enterprise or industrial hardware. India’s software industry is uniquely positioned to benefit from IoT. India can combine low-cost, innovation and revenue generation in any future IoT solution. IoT is the next big thing, and India should do everything possible to drive it.

Maarten Ectors is vice-president of IoT, proximity cloud and next-gen networking for Canonical; and Prakash Advani is regional director, sales & alliances-India & SE Asia for Canonical. Canonical is the company behind Ubuntu.

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