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Where The Internet of Things Runs Aground

The big holiday gift of the season seems to have been the Amazon Echo Dot. The small voice-controlled gadget was the perfect combination of low-cost and high-tech for gadget lovers and techies everywhere. Amazon's line of "Echo" products represents the first big hit seller in voice-controlled digital assistants following on the mediocre performance and reviews of such similar offerings by Apple first with Siri and then Microsoft and Google with their own voice-controlled assistants integrated into their core suite of products. With the market for digital assistants now established and Amazon solidified as a front runner, I turn my attention to the ecosystem of peripheral Internet of Things (IoT) enabled devices around it.

The lights in my home are IoT enabled and controlled by both an app on my phone provided by the lights' manufacturer and through my two Echo devices. It's great; I can tune the lights using my voice to just what I need, set them on timers, and set an "away mode" that overrides the settings if I am out of the apartment for an extended period. But that, save for a few other devices such as the Nest, is really about the best Alexa, Amazon's name for the voice assistant powering Echo, can do with smart home technology. There are hundreds of other electronic devices in my apartment - many that are or will eventually be IoT ready - but there's no way for Alexa to talk to them. My TV, stereo system, kitchen appliances, etc are all, while possibly independently sophisticated, islands of connectivity. I cannot ask Alexa to preheat my oven, change the channel on my Xfinity box, or put the tea kettle on because those manufacturers have not expressly built in support for Alexa.

What is needed is an open standard that manufacturers can begin building into their product lines. This standard would describe the communications interface for IoT devices that all digital assistants such as Siri or Alexa can talk to. That interface would include definitions for basic "intents," actions to perform as indicated by a user's language, and some framework around device discoverability and management. While simple in description, this standard would be a rich catalog of every type of device and action in the IoT landscape plus some extra genericized intents for future expansion.

In essence, I am asking for a common language that all digital assistants can use to communicate with IoT devices. Without it, all of these Internet ready devices are their own little walled gardens within each manufacturer's ecosystem. Such that GE appliances may only work with Google, Samsung TVs might only work with Samsung phones, etc. Let's not even begin to consider how alienated Apple's HomeKit seems to be becoming as a failed extension of the omnipresent Apple ecosystem.

An open standard helps consumers because it removes the proprietary interface that individuals must use to work with IoT devices. For instance, my smart light bulbs wouldn't necessarily need to be controlled by just the app from the manufacturer and any devices they choose to make compatible with them. Instead, any digital assistant could control a device as long as they both adhere to the standard. For instance, I could ask Alexa to turn the lights off, but if I forget to do that after I leave the house, I could also ask Siri on my phone. If I buy a new IoT enabled kitchen appliance, I just need to know it's compatible with the standard and not if it works with Alexa or not. It would be the same as the WiFi icon that started appearing on computers several years ago to show they adhered to that standard.

This helps device manufacturers of both the IoT devices and the controlling digital assistants. For makers of digital assistants, this makes their device compatible with virtually any other IoT device. They can then focus their product development efforts on making their AI and skill suite as rich and smart as possible - which would be independent of the standard and therefore an area where a "secret sauce" could win them the industry. IoT enabled device manufactures will see an upside in the same way all manufactures have realized the benefits of embracing open source. A shared code base that is stable, useful, and - most importantly in the realm of IoT - secured by independent verification will solve most of manufacturers' R&D efforts.

This will work in the same way other open standards have. The web itself is a success story of an open standard embraced by the market. In the early 90s there were countless online services offering proprietary Internet experiences, but the openness of the web and the flourishing of content there drove those siloed products to extinction. What will flourish in an open IoT ecosystem are secure, compatible devices that effortlessly communicate with each other.

And what organization is to lead this open standard? Given Mark Zuckerberg's recent exploration into his own digital assistant, Jarvis, I think Facebook stands a good chance at leading the work into a standard. They have the power to bring manufactures along with them the same way Steve Jobs was able to do so with the iTunes Music Store over a decade ago. They certainly have a vested interested in acquiring the data that comes out of the interaction. And they also have a proven record of establishing and fostering robust open communities with their work releasing libraries such as React and authoring the Open Graph standard.