Does your car talk to your fridge? How about your heating system; does it have regular conversations with your phone?

These questions might have seemed outrageous 10 years ago, but advances in what’s known as the Internet of Things (IoT) have made this a conversation point.

IoT has been hailed as the next evolution of the internet, in which non-living objects are connected to each other and able to share data. But if IoT is truly going to work, there’s one sticking point: collaboration.

The brands making connected products need to work together to ensure their products can ‘talk’ to one another. Interoperability is essential if the mooted $235 billion IoT industry is to thrive.

Why IoT isn’t as straightforward as it seems

“The Internet of Things is becoming ever connected and advanced,” says Philip Clarke, Technical Director at digital agency Rockpool. “However, as an industry still finding its feet, the seamless connection between devices still has a long way to go.

“Until recently it was a case of manufacturers providing their own apps, limiting the potential for integration. Early adopters therefore have ended up with a myriad of apps to contend with for their different devices and appliances.”

IoT has highlighted the need for greater interoperability, but the issue isn’t unique to this latest trend. Without industry standards, it’s very difficult for consumers to buy and use products from different brands. Take the humble electrical plug; different continents still operate with their own plug types – around 20 types worldwide, causing headaches for travellers. Plugs were being sold in the 1880s, so we’ve had more than 130 years to standardise, yet failed.

“A successful example of interoperability is the USB,” says Cesare Garlati, Chief Security Strategist at open source body, prpl Foundation. “A number of devices use the USB standard for connecting and even for charging batteries – these work virtually across all brands and manufacturers.”

But there are always instances in which brands go their own way. “Apple keeps insisting on a proprietary strategy where everything from cables, connectors, printer and wireless routers are largely incompatible with the rest of the world, way more expensive and not necessarily better than de facto standards,” says Garlati.

‘IF IOT IS GOING TO WORK, THERE’S ONE STICKING POINT: COLLABORATION’

All is not lost, particularly for the future of IoT. The AllSeen Alliance and Open Interconnect Consortium (now known as Open Connectivity Foundation – OCF) have been established as cross-industry consortiums, dedicated to enabling the interoperability of billions of devices, services and apps across the IoT. The AllSeen Alliance is going strong. It has witnessed a 658% increase in members since it was established in 2013 and predicts more growth as IoT continues to gain traction.

Members include Microsoft, Philips, Sony, Sharp and Cisco – all important brands in the development of potentially connected devices. Meanwhile, the likes of Samsung, IBM and Electrolux are card-carrying OCF members.

A focus on security

One area of IoT that the two consortiums are no doubt focusing on is security. Having a home’s lights, car and garage door connected opens up untold possibilities for hackers and this has not gone unnoticed by the industry (read more in The security risks of the Internet of Things).

“Though it may not seem like a big deal if a single light bulb is breached in the home – what if a hacker could control every single one of those light bulbs in a specific geographic region and create a power surge which could cause a rolling blackout?” says Garlati. Interoperable standards across the industry could help to maintain security.

This requirement for collaboration is not lost on the world’s technology brands. The AllSeen Alliance and OCF are banging the drum and companies are listening. Recently launched child-tracking device Snowfox, which uses IoT technology to let parents know where their kids are, worked closely with cloud provider Kii to ensure their product had the connectivity it needed.

“When Haltian developed Snowfox, it had to work with chipset manufacturers, sensor companies, providers of 2G and 3G connectivity, miniaturisation companies, business logic firms, the Brightstar distribution channel and cloud providers like us, Kii, to name but a few,” says Kii founder Masanari Arai.

It seems the days of technology companies working in silos might be coming to an end. The evolution of the internet has become a catalyst for greater collaboration.

Illustration: Harry Haysom