With 50 billion IoT devices projected to join the web by 2020, whose platform will they be on?
I’ve written here before about how important it is for each of us, as makers and tech professionals, to stay aware and involved in the development of the “Internet of Things” because it represents a milestone in the development of the World Wide Web. IoT has the potential to change our lives as profoundly as the introduction of personal computers. However, much like the rest of the Internet, IoT could also become a powerful surveillance device for both good and bad governments and organizations. One thing that’s going to play heavily into the calculus of IoT’s fate is the corporate philosophy of IoT’s biggest players. Today we’ll explore two companies vying for IoT supremacy: one on the infrastructure level and one on the device level.
You’ve definitely heard of Cisco. Their logo might be on your home router; it’s definitely on most of the switches between your home router and this web page. Cisco is the largest networking company in the world with over 50 percent market share in the switching/router market alone and nearly $50 billion (with a b!) in revenue in 2016. It’s fair to say Cisco provides many of the vertebrae from which the Internet Backbone is built.
With credentials like that, Cisco seems like a shoe-in for IoT market dominance (and they think so, too). In a keynote presentation at the Cisco Partner Summit in 2016, Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of the IoT & Applications Group at Cisco, claimed that “the internet as we know it today, and the network that you operate, will not work for the internet of things.” A fair point, seeing as IoT could see an unprecedented number of devices joining the web. Trollope, not one to focus on bummers, offered help: “We can solve that problem because we own the network.”
Cisco’s plan? To certify IoT devices as being compatible with their network-based software and then allow the software to automatically authorize certified end-points. To help put their plan into action, Cisco acquired Jasper Technologies in 2016. The resulting cloud platform, Cisco Jasper, is already connecting everything from Coca-Cola vending machines to GE jet engines.
Should we be wary of Cisco’s offer to solve our network management problems? Well, possibly. In 2008, Wired News uncovered a leaked internal presentation that appeared to show Cisco exploring the economic opportunity of China’s Golden Shield program (also known as The Great Firewall of China), and while this was only part of a larger presentation, the apparent willingness of such a large company to assist in stifling free expression for economic gain continues to draw the ire of organizations like the EFF. Cisco was later accused of cooperating with NSA mass-surveillance programs in discussions following the Edward Snowden leaks.
Is it fair to characterize Cisco as an enemy to privacy? Possibly not. But when you “own the network,” you need to be prepared to stand up to some serious scrutiny.
There is ARM architecture within meters of you, statistically speaking. ARM-licensed processor designs are used in everything from smart watches to supercomputers. Where they really shine is in mobile phones, tablets and laptops where their characteristic low-power consumption helps boost battery life and improve performance. Not only the CPUs but also the GPUs, radios and possibly the charge controllers in these devices contain ARM-licensed cores. It’s no surprise that ARM cores end up in the vast majority of IoT devices.
In late 2016, ARM made their intentions in the IoT market known as they introduced the mbed Cloud software-as-a-service platform, which aims to manage and update IoT processors over the lifespan of their deployment. They also developed extremely small and low-cost processor cores that incorporate their TrustZone hardware-based security technology.
Lest you think that ARM is in a weak position compared with Cisco when it comes to network dominance, ARM Holdings has agreed to an offer by SoftBank Group of Japan. If the deal is approved, SoftBank (which also owns the telecom company Sprint) could open doors that were previously sealed to ARM.
It’s also possible that the IoT revolution will take place on ARM’s home field: the end-point hardware. In late 2015, the OpenFog Consortium was founded to promote interest in and development of fog computing. Fog computing is an architecture that aims to keep the majority of storage, communication and control off of primary gateways and, indeed, the Internet Backbone — the theory being that end-point and edge devices (the kind that usually run ARM cores) could collaborate in a kind of massive mesh network. Interestingly, both ARM and Cisco are founding members of the consortium.
There is one more company worth mentioning whenever IoT is on the table, and that company is Microsoft. Over the years, Microsoft has gotten very good at forming strategic business relationships in order to assess (and later to target) markets that are outside its core focus. In fact, Microsoft has been pretty aggressive in their courting of the IoT market, and their involvement includes most of the initiatives I’ve already talked about in this blog post.
For instance, Microsoft was alongside Cisco and ARM in founding the OpenFog Consortium. They also partnered with Cisco in 2015 to launch the long-winded Cisco Cloud Architecture for the Microsoft Cloud Platform, which leveraged Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and Cisco’s infrastructure to deliver a fully integrated cloud solution. Microsoft must have liked some of Cisco’s IoT ideas because just this year they poached Cisco’s IoT Leader, Tony Shakib, and made him general manager of their IoT Intelligent Cloud business.
How else is Microsoft ensuring a future for their Azure cloud platform? One good way is by working with Qualcomm to bring full-scale Windows 10 to ARM devices. For years, ARM’s dominance in the embedded device market hurt Microsoft because their aging Windows Embedded operating system couldn’t compete with others that were designed to be fully capable on ARM architecture. Microsoft was, in effect, being edged out by other companies that played nice with ARM. With Windows 10 coming to ARM-based devices, Microsoft stands a chance at getting a lot more IoT devices onto their Azure platform.
We’re still in the early days of IoT, so it’s hard to imagine who might come out on top. That being said, it may be important to decide who we want to be on top (or if we want anyone on top, at all) before the dust settles. Remember, as a hobbyist and as a developer, the platforms that you choose for hosting your projects will ultimately gain traction in the market. Learn a little bit about the companies that are going to steer our digital fate and vote with your data. The future of the Internet is in your hands!