09 July 2015
By Stephen A Chadwick
My wife and I, our three boys and our dog recently visited my wife's parents. They own a big old house in Zuera, a town built on the banks of the Rio Gallego (a tributary of the Ebro) on the outskirts of Zaragoza. They have a lovely place; big garden to kick a ball about, swings for the kids, large barbeque area and a pool. My mother in law grows strawberries, cooks amazing roast lamb and my father in law knocks up a legendary paella in a big pan on a butane gas stove. Local children gather at the front gate and sing songs the minute they see him emerge with the gas bottle and the paella pan. (Today's factoid: The pan is actually called the "paella", in much the same way "balti" derives from the Urdu "bāltī", literally meaning "cooking bucket".)
There's no wifi though. And no satellite TV. They're content with their talk radio stations. As a consequence stays of a longer duration can tend to get a bit monotonous, especially as they're strict adherents of the "early to bed, early to rise" philosophy which I have so much trouble adapting to - "7am? Why are you waking me up in the middle of the night?"
They have a satellite dish on their roof though, it used to look down on me from its lofty perch and mock me as I shuffled aimlessly around the garden. They even have all the coaxial cabling to various rooms. So now if we're staying for any length of time we take a portable TV and our own satellite receiver. We can have a film in bed and we don't miss El Clasico - everyone's a happy banana.
Except this last time, in my haste to pack the car, locate the dog and get him in his travelling crate, shepherd the small people we own out of the front door, down the driveway and into their car seats, I foolishly left both remote controls on the coffee table. Just a few short years ago this would have been an unmitigated disaster. I'd have spent hours scouring village shops for a universal remote, ended up having to go to central Zaragoza and, having finally purchased a universal remote and got back with it, no doubt wildly celebrating with it raised above my head like the F.A. Cup, I'd have realised I'd not got any batteries for it and had to mount another expedition out into the wilderness.
But it dawned on me. I had a smart phone in my pocket. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later I'd downloaded a universal remote app from the Play Store and it worked a treat. This my friends, albeit the crudest of examples, is essentially what the Internet of Things is all about. It's the ability of seemingly unrelated objects having the capacity to interact with one another.
For years we've been waiting for the "smart home" to become reality and it's never quite materialised. As things stand my Samsung TV will interact nicely with my Samsung Blu Ray machine and my Galaxy Note 3, however it's not hugely interested in my Xbox, satellite receiver or the Sony stereo hooked up to it. I can, (and have) downloaded the Xbox Glass app meaning my phone interacts with the games console but it all just seems a bit, well, a bit convoluted.
What people want, what really needs to happen for the Internet of Things to be a "thing", is open interfacing. We don't want 28 different apps on our phones to do 28 different tasks. We want it all in one place. We currently find ourselves in something of a transitional phase. At this moment in time we're seeing the development of specialised hubs. So for example all your curtains or blinds will operate via one hub, your lighting will be via another hub, your AC and heating via another. Goods produced by the same manufacturer will seamlessly add-on to the products you already own but rarely do they allow for a rival's product to be added onto the same "grid".
It was with all this in mind that I read with a good deal of relish a CNET interview with Doug Davis, senior VP at Intel and general manager of its Internet of Things group. What Davis envisages is the progression towards a single gateway for everything: "I think that's what we're going to eventually evolve to. Press the garage door opener, have it disable my security system and turn on the lights, all because I pushed one button."
I hope he's right. It wasn't so long ago we'd be doing a circuit of the entire office saying "Hey! Anyone got a Nokia charger?" and look now, a micro USB cable is just about all you need for anything - cameras, phones, tablets, kindles, console controllers...
Manufacturers have realised that proprietary accessories might net them a profit in the short term, but eventually a winner emerges. In the bottom of an old drawer I still have an old memory card reader that accepts no less than 9 different types of card. I haven't used anything but SD and micro SD in the last 10 years. In fact the only exception to this rule in my entire house is one of the kids' PS Vita consoles and it drives me nuts that Sony are charging over four times more for memory on their proprietary cards when compared to SD.
And so the Internet of Things is about manufacturers going a step further than producing equipment that accepts a bog standard figure 8 power cable, micro USB and standard memory cards. It's about whether they will be prepared to open source a good deal of their software to make third party add-ons not just workable after several tweaks, but be seamlessly incorporated into a universal gateway.