The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Justin Anderson, executive chairman of the Flexeye Group, an Internet of Things solutions company based in Guildford. Anderson discussed the importance of interoperability for the Internet of Things.
Paul MacDonnell: Flexeye started out in 2005 as a middleware provider for “smart” devices connected to the emerging Internet of Things. How have smart devices changed since then?
Justin Anderson: Back in 2005, fewer devices had enough capacity to have any sort of functionality in their local memory. They were mostly dumb and relied on central programs and databases run on servers with which they exchanged information and instructions. What has changed is that devices themselves now both hold information and instructions and can also collect and send information across networks to other types of devices or applications.
MacDonnell: What is the role of middleware—software that allows two different programs to interact with each other—in the Internet of Things?
Anderson: As the size and diversity of networks has grown so has the number of types of devices and applications. Devices need to be able to communicate with each other and the fact that there are so many different technologies and software applications has posed a huge challenge for interoperability and communication across networks. Middleware enables these otherwise incompatible technologies to communicate with each other, which adds value to the overall network.
MacDonnell: The United Kingdom appears to be doing well in its deployment of the Internet of Things. What has contributed to its success?
Anderson: I think the UK is at the forefront. Right now the biggest investors in Internet of Things technologies are asset-intensive industries such as water and electricity utilities, oil, and gas, as well as transportation networks. But increasingly manufacturers and cities are adopting it.
And this is encouraged on the policy side. Here the government has invested £200 million ($289.2 million) in a number of different projects, including initiatives in transportation and healthcare. But some of the most notable investments include the Future Cities Catapult initiative that’s helping innovators develop new technologies that can have an impact on the urban environment.
MacDonnell: You chair the steering group of Hypercat, a government-supported consortium that has developed an Internet of Things standard for industry and cities. How important are standards in the roll out of innovations based on the Internet of Things?
Anderson: There are millions of Internet of Things devices and billions of apps. Without standards, such as the Narrow-Band Internet of Things (NB-IOT) wireless communication standard, this technology would not have become as promising as it is. But different technologies and protocols continue to pose challenges. This is because many smart technologies have developed in relative isolation from each other and this has led to a lot of incompatibilities. This reduces the interoperability of devices and is a potential drag on its take up. That’s why more than 1,000 organizations signed up to the Hypercat Standard and it’s why Hypercat has, itself, formed an alliance with the Open Connectivity Foundation, the largest Internet of Things standards organization.
MacDonnell: What would a world of seamless interoperability for the Internet of Things look like?
Anderson: McKinsey has said that 40 percent of the value of the Internet of Things will depend upon interoperability, which is a substantial portion of potentially unrealised value. Right now the Internet of Things exists in silos, often within the same city or factory. Increasingly innovators will wish to break through these silo walls so that information from one silo can be combined with information from another. All of the desirable scenarios for the future development of the Internet of Things and innovation generally will require the availability of information from specific devices across many platforms where it can be used in a huge range of applications. These include games or planning tools that make use of virtual reality or artificial intelligence. Without interoperability and compatibility, this will not happen.