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Standardizing the world of the Internet of Things

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Director of Interactive Sales, WNEP-TV / WNEP.com

Lavish product introductions and grand partnership announcements are common fare in the technology and business worlds. It seems that not a day goes by when Company X unveils New Product Y, or Company X feels the need to inform you about their wonderful new partnership with Company Z. How often does this ever really feel like news? How often do you feel like you are watching something truly special? You can tell I'm leading up to something, right?

A new way to look at the Internet of Things

Standardizing the world of the Internet of ThingsI had the opportunity to watch the livestream of IBM's Internet of Things event, and this was anything but the previously mentioned type of announcement. This event, which took place on April 9, 2015 in New York City, was true to IBM form by unveiling not just one, but several new product categories. For those of you who missed it live, check out the IoT Livestream recording.

Whenever I'm observing one of these types of announcement events, I often like to observe from a relative distance in order to not miss a larger picture (if one is present). I wrote earlier this year on the IBM InterConnect 2015 Conference, and how I felt the overall theme was IBM announcing a new type of product ecosystem, which draws together many seemingly disparate business entities and ties them together into a nice package, revolutionizing the mobile and cloud services industry. While the livestream event focused on the Internet of Things (IoT), I felt that IoT wasn't actually the true, overarching message at all. In my opinion, the absolutely key takeaway was the idea of "standardization."

As a trained software engineer, I love standards and formalized practices. These two ideas are the necessary foundation of any stable software architecture. Without well-defined standards and proven repeatable processes, the code that holds our world together would simply cease to function. Worse yet, this code would be nearly impossible to debug, and harder still to correct. You see, I like to compare software systems to an intricate latticework, similar to a spider web. The core of the web typically is built with much redundancy, in order to plan for and mitigate the effects of removal of any number of central supporting structures. The outside of the web, however, is often a completely different story. A typical spider web might be anchored to a wall, or a tree or any such surface by only two or three actual threads. If you remove the wrong thread, the integrity of the web may be critically threatened. So too are software systems potentially susceptible to such interruption. If your web isn't anchored properly, then all your hard work can simply flutter away in a strong breeze.

A powerful new partnership

Enough waxing poetic, let's bring this back to IoT. First up, Bob Picciano (SVP IBM Analytics) and David Kenny (CEO of The Weather Company) formally announced the partnership between IBM and The Weather Company (TWC). Many of you already know The Weather Company, especially if you have the iOS and Android top 25 "The Weather Channel" app. Yes, that Weather Company. This is a partnership of potentially epic proportions as TWC APIs and data will be generally available through Bluemix. Considering the large role that weather plays in the lives of every single human on this planet, this opportunity to build intelligent apps utilizing the largest current and historical database of weather history on the planet should yield amazing results in due time.

Let's take a minute to look a little closer at a real-world application. Did you know that one of the biggest influencing factors on aircraft maintenance costs is weather? Not a big surprise there, but the thing you may not have realized is that with access to the types of data that TWC's B2B arm WSI collects, planned travel routes may be altered in-flight, in order to dynamically avoid excessive pockets of turbulence. By taking advantage of this data, not only will the travel experience be made more comfortable, but maintenance costs may be reduced drastically as well.

Once discussion of the TWC partnership had concluded, the second half of the IoT presentation brought presentations and demonstrations of various tools, real-time analytics examples and IoT sensor applications. Whether it was tools to help build maintainable platforms for implementation in automotive infotainment systems, or new sensor applications for evaluating real-time conditions based maintenance applications in the automotive and air travel industries, the announcements were impressive, yet quite diverse.

The importance of standardization

Ultimately, a large variety of products were announced, each significant in its own right. But how do these products tie together? What relation exists between the WSI partnership announcement, and discussion of detailed IoT sensor capabilities? Reading between the lines, I've fixated on the idea of "standardization." In the modern world, approximately 80 percent of all data created on a daily basis is unstructured "dark" data. This means that while we have the ability to capture and store this data, it is essentially useless without what I like to call an "extreme data intervention." Furthermore, the cacophony of ecosystems that these connected devices live in reminds me of the spider web I mentioned earlier. Current connected devices will probably work fine under certain circumstances, but remove a supporting web and the entire structure comes crashing down.  

IBM's IoT event didn't seem intended to be taken as many separate announcements; rather this was IBM's chance to show that it understands the challenges in dealing with the dark data produced by the billions of connected devices that will be developed over the course of the next several years. By working to develop standard access methodologies for internet connected devices and to provide a stable platform (Bluemix) on which to develop robust applications, developers are able to more quickly harness the potential power of the information produced. Not only can developers make better use of that data, but the systems they build to connect these devices will be ultimately more stable and robust using the tools provided by IBM. The idea of the flimsy spider web ceases to exist.

When I think of the Internet of Things, I don't focus on individual products like smartwatches, or internet connected refrigerators—I tend to look beyond the application at whether this device controlling an aspect of my life is reliable. If I install a smart thermostat, will a failure to connect with a server cause my pipes to freeze in the winter? Will an unstable predictive analytics platform, combined with a potentially undiagnosed faulty sensor, lead to my air travel being delayed? The latest announcements from IBM give me hope that through these new platforms, combined with a low barrier to entry for developers, my world with IoT will become less of a worry and more of a necessity. 

Watch the IBM IoT livestream recording