Jared Weiner: Platformia — A World of Intranets of Things and Anti-Interoperability
The Industrial Internet is quickly grabbing the attention of industry players, organizations and governments as being a major disruption to global industry and the world economy. Though a recent survey by the World Economic Forum found that 88 percent of respondents were not ready for this transformation, organizations in many industries are beginning to design and deploy Industrial Internet solutions to optimize processes and production and reduce costs.
As companies consider the solutions that best meet their needs, one key consideration will likely be how seamless of an operation they can achieve.
The Industrial Internet consists of many elements — from sensors and actuators controlling physical things in the real world, ubiquitous connections of these devices to control software that must be able to operate in the absence of direct control, collections of “Big Data,” and industrial analytics in the cloud.
For it to work, all these elements must be able to work together — or have interoperability. But they come from multiple sources and could speak different “languages” — making integration into one system difficult.
To build an Industrial Internet system, we must minimize the effort required to assemble the various elements into a coherent — or interoperable — whole. Small companies in particular often cannot afford the expense involved in writing the code needed to make off-the-shelf Industrial Internet elements interoperate. By ensuring interoperability in advance, we reduce the costs of development and spur innovation.
How to Ensure interoperability
There are several approaches to achieving interoperability, including defining the solution’s application programmer interface (API), a tool that allows developers to make one piece of software talk to another piece of software. But probably the most effective path to interoperability is the creation of Industrial Internet standards. Standardization allows different components, with the same function and the same interfaces, to be swapped out.
Once standards organizations address Industrial Internet standardization — especially standards focused on the language used to describe capabilities and interface -— components will be able to determine how best to interact with each other.
While not a standards organization, the Industrial Internet Consortium is working to identify what standards are needed for the Industrial Internet. Our recently released Industrial Internet Reference Architecture (IIRA) technical document identifies each of the required components and the available standards and technologies for each.
We also ask: where are there gaps, and what roadblocks stand in the way to creating new standards? A favorite analogy of our chief technology officer, Stephen Mellor, is that the IIRA is like furnishing a dining room: it determines what elements (furniture) are already available (chairs, the china set, and a ceiling fixture) and what is still needed (the dining room table).
The key to Industrial Internet interoperability is cooperation and collaboration from industry leaders. We have a number of liaison agreements with organizations that do create standards, and will also act to harmonize potentially conflicting standards and minimize the degree of arbitrary difference in the marketplace. This will help accelerate standards development and adoption and improve interoperability.
Our organization is made up of more than 180 organizations hailing from industry and academia. If we can all collaborate on determining what is necessary for Industrial Internet standards, we will all reap the benefits of the transformation the Industrial Internet is poised to bring about.
To download a copy of the Industrial Internet Reference Architecture, visit www.iiconsortium.org/iira.
Richard Soley is Executive Director of the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC). In addition to this role, Dr. Soley is Chairman and CEO of the Object Management Group (OMG®) — an international, nonprofit computer industry standards consortium — and Executive Director of the Cloud Standards Customer Council — an end-user advocacy group.
Within the last few years, the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) has entered the mainstream vernacular. The IoT consists of “real” things increasingly connected to each other virtually in an Internet-like structure. More profoundly, we can think of the IoT as a responsive digital network that will encapsulate almost everything within the human ecosystem. It will be laden with smart sensors and interconnected devices that hold the promise of smarter, more efficient, more automated and more proactive decision making. Engineers are developing disruptive future applications of this technology in the consumer market (the “smart,” connected home), healthcare, transportation and infrastructure.
In 2014, approximately 2 billion “connected” devices were shipped worldwide; that figure is projected to grow by 300 percent to around 8 billion devices by 2020. Meanwhile, global revenue opportunities from the IoT are projected to grow at more than a 450 percent clip to over $1 trillion US by 2020
For the IoT—along with the Industrial Internet, which connects complex machines at an industrial scale—to fulfill its promise of redefining how we interact with the things around us, one defining feature will be interoperability, as Paul Kominers of Democracy Works has argued. Devices will need to be able to send and receive signals from one another and to understand what those signals mean.
But perhaps the future IoT will not be seamlessly connected, open and universal. Rather, we may see a near future of many separate intranets of things and general anti-interoperability between the systems that form the architecture for this technology. This is a world of Platformia.
Platform Economics at Work
Today’s tech landscape is largely characterized by the network effect, or the notion that when more and more people adopt something, the more valuable it becomes to all of them. Now that more objects are wired into networks, there are opportunities for new, powerful platforms to emerge. Platform economics help explain why companies like Uber, Apple, and Amazon are so successful, according to Marshall Van Alstyne, a business professor at Boston University; they have created, like Apple’s iOS operating system, something that produces value outside their own firm.
Business platforms often facilitate connectivity between two or more parties. However, platforms have to go beyond connectivity and provide reasons for other people to add value. That often means allowing recombination of features in ways that the original developer does not plan for…such as the explosion of iPhone apps.
Ultimately, the future IoT may morph into a virtual “battleground” between powerful platform companies — not dissimilar to the battles waged within telecomm, mobile, computing operating systems and social media — that will cleave the IoT into multiple, distinct and separate Intranets.
Anti-Interoperability: Competitive Forces
Green Mountain Coffee helped pioneer single-serving coffee pods. But it is not keen on others eating into that business, so its new coffee makers have technology that prevents people from using pods from other companies. More than just limiting brand choice, efforts like these are harbingers of the kind of closed system that could hamper the true interoperability and ubiquity promises of the IoT. For now, coffee makers are not Internet-connected devices — but they likely soon will be. And Green Mountain is far from alone in this kind of brand protectionism.
That strategy suggests makers of IoT hardware might not view interoperability as a positive. In many cases, companies will want to preserve their market share. But in many other cases, the main issue will be preservation of intellectual property in an environment likely to be rife with cybersecurity concerns. Ultimately, Kominers argues, the obstacles to a wide-open IoT are more likely to be organizational than technological.
The Compatibility Principle
One key tool for ensuring interoperability in the IoT is the application programming interface (API), a tool that allow developers to make one piece of software talk to another piece of software. The reason why some of today’s largest platform players have succeeded is because they leverage the power of open APIs, allowing others to add value to the platform.
Currently, there are several APIs that make integrating various objects into the fledgling IoT easier. For example, Walgreens allows developers to access its photo printing services through APIs, leading to the creation of applications that let users print photos from social media. Johnnie Walker built a platform that connects 100,000 of their whiskey bottles to the Internet. With innovations in smart labeling, the brand allowed anyone to create a personalized film tribute. And Ford is investing in new business models and partnerships that include ridesharing and on-demand services. Its AppLink platform allows users to connect to apps through voice recognition.
While many other brands will likely follow suit, there will be just as many that dig their heels in and take a stance similar to Green Mountain’s — use our products on our approved network, or you won’t be able to use them at all. Currently, some products can be retrofit with sensors that allow them to integrate into existing IoT technology. But, in the future, more products will likely be manufactured to integrate into the network — and they may be manufactured to integrate into only one network platform, just like your mobile can only function using one operating system. In the near future, we can expect that compatibility principle to be blown out even further.
`Hackability’ of the IoT
The U.S. State Department recently deployed a team of hackers, activists and developers to develop a “mesh” network. The mesh allows users in a local area to create a network that is physically distinct from the Internet.
But this type of security model will not be limited to the existing Internet itself. What will stop hackers from hacking a connected home? Because of hacking and related privacy concerns, it may become a necessity for the IoT to operate more as a series of “closed” networks — or intranets — versus one open, interoperable network.
Welcome to Platformia
As IoT platform companies of the near future become incredibly powerful, what will the regulatory burden be for controlling this competitive environment? Surely, in absence of one completely interoperable ecosystem, we will not see a true monopoly. But, we could see something close to the duopoly that has long dominated computer operating systems, or the oligopoly we see in mobile.
Based on how these platforms will have to integrate with product design, we can expect that first-to-market may trump best-to-market, and a few powerhouse firms will dominate this new frontier of IoT Platformia.