The promise of ambient computing is a beautiful thing: electronic environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people. It's what leading technologists (not to mention science fiction writers) have dreamed about for nearly a century and it's almost within our reach.
But building and outfitting IT environments with cloud‑connected, data‑transmitting and self‑aware electronics is only half the equation. For ambient intelligence to really work, smart devices, smart rooms and the smart things inside them need to speak a common language, which is precisely what proponents like Bharath Balakrishnan, Senior Manager of Cognizant's Internet of Things (IoT) practice, believes will emerge this year.
The problem, Balakrishnan says, is the multitude of languages, protocols and standards, as well as the lack of agreement on which works best for individual layers of the IoT. It's the equivalent of having too many enterprising cooks in the kitchen, whether proprietary or open source in their approach.
That said, trying to achieve an industry‑wide acceptance of one unified standard might be a wild goose chase, according to Balakrishnan, even though this is not the best scenario for users across the extended enterprise. For instance, an organization might plan a framework best suited for its individual needs and then choose one of multiple standards to best satisfy that need, whether it's an enterprise platform from Axeda, Thingworx or Predix or a competing open source alternative.
However, that's difficult to do with so many standardization bodies and consortiums vying to become king of the mountain. As more organizations pursue ambient computing initiatives, standardization attempts are more divergent than convergent. Thus, Balakrishnan hopes for a consolidated but still competitive approach—rather than a linear “winner take all” one—that meets the needs of various use cases and real-world deployments.
In other words, ambient computing is moving away from a singular Internet of Things (IoT) toward a plural “Internets of Things” that operate independently but can still connect to the public network if desired, says Balakrishnan.
Additional time and deeper collaboration are required for this advanced view of the IoT to coalesce. Ubiquitous or entrenched IoT deployments are still five to 10 years out, according to Cognizant insiders and Gartner research, placing the technology at or shortly behind the original 2020 target set by many prognosticators late last millennium, when research and development in ambient computing first began.
In the meantime, Balakrishnan expects pioneering standardization groups to collaborate on different layers of the Internets of Things. This work will include consolidated protocols for devices and their connectivity; data management protocols, including collection, storage, modeling and analytics and application protocols that can be deployed to devices and desired ecosystems.
The idea would be to develop an IoT framework that encompasses all the layers with hooks and connectors, Balakrishnan says, covering all involved entities, from devices and networks to machine-to-machine and Web standards.
Has such delicate collaboration worked in the past? Yes, he says, most notably among telecom service providers. Individual operators followed their own unique protocols until the Telecommunications Industry Association standardized multiple consortiums that led to widespread agreements on data center infrastructure, cabling, fiber‑optic color‑coding and other protocols. The same is true of ambient computing and the Internet of Things.
Although there have been several small-scale IoT deployments, many organizations are reluctant to invest in ambient computing until large-scale victories have been realized or at least proven. One notable exception is in industrial manufacturing, which is using IoT today for preventive equipment maintenance. (Read Part I and II of our white paper on “Informed Manufacturing.”) As for intra‑organizational IoT deployments, conversations with customers in other industries are in advanced stages right now, says Balakrishnan.
Until then, the race to consolidate standards continues. And as always, the stakes are high for first‑moving stakeholders.
To discover how ambient computing will impact your business, please visit our Internet of Things practice or read our latest PoV on the state of the Internet of Things.