IOT and Stuff – The Evolution

Overview

This is the first of several posts I expect to do on IoT, including systems design, authentication, standards, and security domains. This particular post is an IoT backgrounder from my subjective viewpoint.

Introduction

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a phenomena that is difficult to define, and difficult to scope. The reason it is difficult to define is that it is rapidly evolving, and is currently based on the foundational capabilities IoT implementations provide.

Leaving the marketing hyperbole behind, IoT is the integration of ‘things’ into what we commonly refer to as the Internet. Things are anything that can support sensors and/or controls, an RF network interface, and most importantly – a CPU. This enables ubiquitous control / visibility into something physical on the network (that wasn’t on the network before).

IoT is currently undergoing a massive level of expansion. It is a chaotic expansion without any real top down or structured planning. This expansion is (for the most part) not driven by need, but by opportunity and the convergence of many different technologies.

Software Development Background

In this section, I am going to attempt to draw a parallel to IoT from the recent history of software development. Back at the start of the PC era (the 80s), software development carried with it high cost for compilers, linkers, test tools, packagers, etc. This marketing approach was inherited from the mainframe / centralized computer system era, where these tools were purchased and licensed by “the company”.  The cost of an IBM Fortran compiler and linker for the PC in the mid 80s was over $700, and libraries were $200 each (if memory serves me). In addition, the coding options were very static and very limited. Fortran, Cobol, C, Pascal, Basic and Assembly represented the vast majority of programming options. In addition (and this really surprised me at the time), if you sold a commercial software package that was compiled with the IBM compiler, it required that you purchase a distribution license from IBM that was priced based on number of units sold.  Collectively, these were significant barriers to any individual who wanted to even learn how to code.

This can be contrasted with the current software development environment where there is a massive proliferation of languages and most of them available as open source. The only real limitations or barriers to coding are personal ability, and time. There have been many events that have led to this current state, but (IMO) there were two key events that played a significant part in this. The first of these was the development of Borland Turbo Pascal in 1983, which retailed for $49.99, with unlimited distribution rights for an additional $99.99 for any software produced by the compiler. Yes I bought a copy (v2), and later I bought Turbo Assembler, Delphi 1.0, and 3.0. This was the first real opportunity for an individual to learn a new computer language (or to program at all) at an approachable cost without pirating it.

To re-iterate, incumbent software development products were all based on a mainframe market, and mainframe enterprise prices and licensing, with clumsy workflows and interfaces, copy protection or security dongles. Borland’s Turbo Pascal integrated editor, compiler and linker into an IDE – which was an innovative concept at the time. It also had no copy protection and a very liberal license agreement referred to as the Book License. It was the first software development product targeted at end users in a PC type market rather than the enterprise that employed the end user.

The second major event that brought about the end of expensive software development tools was GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) in 1987, with stable release by 1991. Since then, GCC has become the default compiler engine nearly all code development, enabling an explosion of languages, developers and open source software. It is the build engine that drives open source development.

In summary, by eliminating the barriers to software development (over the last 3 decades),  software development has exploded and proliferated to a degree not even imagined when the PC was introduced.

IoT Convergence

In a manner very analogous to software development over the last 3 decades, IoT is being driven by a similar revolution in hardware development, hardware production, and  software tools. One of the most significant elements of this explosion is the proliferation of Systems On a Chip (SoC) microprocessors. As recently as a decade ago (maybe a bit longer), the simplest practical microprocessor required a significant number of external support functions, which have now been integrated to a single piece of silicon. Today, there are microprocessors with various combinations of integrated UARTs, USB OTG ports, SDIO, I2C, persistent flash RAM, RAM, power management, GPIO, ADC and DAC converters, LCD drivers, self-clocking oscillator, and a real time clock  – all for a dollar or two.

A secondary aspect of the hardware development costs are a result of the open source hardware movement (OSH), that has produced very low cost development kits. In the not so distant past, the going cost for microprocessor development kit was about $500, and that market has been decimated by Arduino, Raspberry PI, and dozens of other similar products.

Another convergent element of the IoT convergence comes from open source software / hardware movement. All of the new low cost hardware development kits are based on some form of open source software packages. PCB CAD design tools like KiCAD enable low cost PCB development. Projects like OSHPark enable low cost PCB prototypes and builds without lot charges or minimum panel charges.

A third facet of the hardware costs is based on the availability and lower costs of data link radios for use with microprocessors. Cellular, Wi-Fi, 802.15.4, Zigbee, Bluetooth and Bluetooth LE all provide various tradeoffs of cost, performance, and ease of use – but all of them have devices and development kits that are an order of magnitude of lower cost than a decade ago.

The bottom line, is that IoT is not being driven by end use cases, or one group, special interest or industry consortium. It is being driven by the convergent capabilities of lower cost hardware, lower cost development tools, more capable hardware / software, and the opportunity to apply to whatever “thing” anybody is so inclined. This makes it really impossible to determine what it will look like as it evolves, and it also makes efforts by various companies get in front of or “own” IoT seem unlikely to succeed. The best these efforts are likely to achieve is that they will dominate or drive some segment of IoT by the virtue of what value they contribute to IoT. Overall these broad driving forces and the organic nature of the IoT growth means it is also very unlikely that it can be dominated or controlled, so my advice is to try and keep up and don’t get overwhelmed.

Personally, I am pretty excited about it.

PS – Interesting Note: Richard Stallman may be better known for his open source advocacy and failed Mach OS, but he was the driving developer behind GCC and EMACs, and GCC is probably as important as the Linux kernel in the foundation and success of the Linux OS and the open source software movement.

References

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