The success of connected homes or buildings relies on data communication. All of the smart devices within a network must be able to interact with each other, their controller and the local wireless connectivity system (e.g. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth). This might sound easy enough, but the concept poses a real challenge for device manufacturers because there is no generally accepted data communication standard for connected devices.
As a result, smart devices manufactured by different brands often speak slightly or even very different languages. This makes it difficult for the devices to communicate with each other, almost as if they understand every other word or a small cluster of words the other device is transmitting. This poor interoperability diminishes the convenience and efficiency these devices are supposed to offer users.
To play it safe, some consumers and businesses might become brand-aligned and purchase devices from the same product families. For example, a homeowner might upgrade his or her home with a Whirlpool refrigerator, washer and dryer and use a smart phone to control all of them. However, these devices still need to easily connect with the user’s home Wi-Fi in a plug-and-play fashion to enable easy setup. From there, the devices need to effortlessly maintain that connection to ensure that they are ready to work when the consumer needs them.
At some point, though, it’s likely that the user will want to integrate a new or different product from another brand. This, of course, opens up the inter-device data communication issue again. Many smaller devices are intended for self-installation by the user, and if the installation and integration are not simple enough, the user will have more headaches than s/he bargained for. In addition, if the devices do not follow the same cybersecurity protocols, the smart network could have a hole in it that allows hackers to steal information or alter the system.
To solve this, data communication standards must be established for the Internet of Things (IoT), whether the device is designed for use in a connected home or in a car. Industry experts need to find the lowest common denominator among devices on the market to establish a new or modified language that devices from different brands could use to communicate with each other. New brands and devices would also speak this language to be a part of the mainstream IoT market. In addition, the standards should establish a common security protocol to ensure that there are no cybersecurity holes.
In Jabil’s 2018 Connected Home and Building Technology Trends survey, 43 percent of participants said that the lack of data communication and application standards was one of their biggest challenges. Meanwhile, 97 percent of respondents indicated that clear standards for data and communication between devices would benefit their businesses. The specific potential benefits of these standards are wide-ranging:
Of course, data communication standards would also benefit the end-customer. A common language among connected devices would enable them to operate in the way users expect: without hassle and with other devices every time. Ideally, a user could plug in a new device and turn it on, and then the device could connect itself with the local network to become part of the smart home or building. This would be much more user-friendly, allowing consumers to easily install a connected device on their own without headaches.
Now is the perfect time to solidify these standards as more consumers are adopting connected devices. At some point, most — or even all — devices in a home or building will be smart. Establishing a common language for these products will ensure that new devices can integrate into smart homes or networks effortlessly and work together in harmony.
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For now, different manufacturers have different approaches to interoperability, leaving the industry with a few starter options for building a data communication standard. In the Jabil survey, 45 percent of participants said they utilize a controlled approach, which means their brands deliver all of the needed functionality within their own managed ecosystems. This gives a brand full control over the customer experience. Solution providers that exercise this approach are known to have an ecosystem of devices that are easy to use, providing the convenience that users seek. Considering 50 percent of survey respondents said delivering a user interface that works as expected was a challenge, a controlled ecosystem may be the way to go. However, tight controls make it more difficult for devices with one brand to communicate with devices from another brand, so this does not solve the interoperability problem.
A slightly larger portion (47 percent) of survey participants have adopted an “interoperable” approach, meaning that they design their products to work with devices across brands, allowing the user to create their own ecosystem. Companies that manufacture connected devices for businesses are more likely to adopt this approach, as 60 percent of the B2B participants of the Jabil survey indicated that they follow this system. These manufacturers are more interested in functionality than user experience, so they do not need as much control.
Only 8 percent of survey participants said they are using an open-source system that enables users to do whatever they want with the device. This system is for more advanced users and might be too complicated for the average user as of now.
Interestingly, there is a striking contrast between controlled and interoperable manufacturers, the types of products they produce or plan to produce, and their cybersecurity approaches. Manufacturers who follow a controlled approach believe that the largest opportunity for connected home and building solutions lies in energy efficiency devices, such as smart lightbulbs and thermostats. In contrast, manufacturers who favor interoperability foresee smart building devices, such as smart temperature, energy and lighting controls, as the future. In addition, controlled manufacturers seem to be more concerned about device cybersecurity. According to the survey, 87 percent of controlled manufacturers have adjusted their cybersecurity approaches as a result of the Facebook data controversy that was revealed earlier this year and the recent introduction of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. In contrast, only 57 percent of interoperable manufacturers changed their cybersecurity policies.
The answer must lie somewhere in the middle. According to Jabil research, consumers expect an easy, plug-and-play experience and devices that are easy to operate and control through a friendly and intuitive interface or through voice commands. At the same time, they do not want to compromise their privacy and home security by installing devices that could leak their personal information or give hackers digital access to their home networks. Data communication standards must take these and other user interests into consideration to help build truly connected homes and buildings that add convenience and tackle daily challenges for users.