A WebRTC-like Standard for the Internet of Things? It's Complicated


Building the connections for the Internet of Things (IoT) is challenging, since applications, services, and devices of all different shapes, sizes, and requirements have to seamlessly communicate.  In an ideal world, we would have a WebRTC-like interface standard accessible through HTML, but it's not going to be that simple, says the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF).

“The approach we've taken is focusing on data level interoperability,” said David McCall, a Senior Strategic Planner at Intel. “It's difficult for developers to build things since they have to focus on [lower level] protocols and build upward.”

OCF is made up of over 300 companies, with members spanning from the usual tech suspects such as CableLabs, Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, and Qualcomm to industrial concerns including Electrolux and GE along with Lowe's (yes, the home improvement store) and a cast of other interested parties.  The organization is focusing on building a common open set of standards with a grammar, a language of sorts, and specific “words” useful for devices.  IotTivity is the open source framework built and available for use today, with a standardized resource interaction model, standardized data modules, worlds, and language, enabling developers to write apps based on the OCF framework and make them interoperable with other services and devices in a particular ecosystem.

Devices, services, and apps using the OCF framework and specifications should be able to intercommunicate, but there will be specialized words (characteristics) and uses within specific areas. An IoT healthcare device under the OCF framework should work fine within and to another OCF-based healthcare device, service, or app, while an IoT device for the Smart Home will have a different applicable set of worlds.  There are currently specific OCF projects for Automotive, Healthcare, and Smart Home, with a separate working group dedicated to security to insure best practices from day one.

Since there are already a large number of IoT devices in the world, the OCF framework also included the concept of bridges since the beginning of the effort. In the telco world, a bridge would be similar to a session border controller (SBC), with translation in this case being between existing/legacy proprietary IoT protocols and OCF-speak.

OCF is handling both, defining the specification and certifying compliance to it, along with providing and supporting the IotTivity open source code for developers.   There are eight OCF certification labs up and running around the world and there are a number of devices and manufacturers already working with the specification today.

Demonstrations I saw at CES 2017 included interoperability between OCF wearable healthcare devices, “legacy” healthcare devices and OCF services, a kitchen and living room “smart home” demonstration, and an interop between an OCF automobile and a smart home. 

The smart home demonstrations were the most memorable for the shiny new devices working in combination, including an LG refrigerator loaded with a large Microsoft Windows 10 see-through touchscreen connected to various devices and air conditioner/purifiers.  One can have pre-loaded scripts of IoT settings on the fridge for cooking that cranks up the local air purifier, to prevent odors from filling the household, another for party mode that lowers the AC, adjusts the lighting, and turns on music, and so on. The connected home/auto demo showed how different settings could be customized for the driver and the home, changing the tone and volume of music in the house once the driver has left the garage – something that may be appealing to parents and children with different music tastes, if nothing else.

Given that OCF has been in operation for less than three years, it is impressive to see the progress made in developing code and getting working interoperable solutions between devices and services.   I'm hoping for more marketing of OCF IoT interoperability awareness at the buyer/consumer level so I can buy the “Best of breed” solutions of what I (think) I need without having to worry about compatibility or being locked into a specific solution.  OCF will also mean bigger opportunities for the reseller/VAR world, since businesses will want to do the same when it comes to applying IoT to their own needs.

Edited by Alicia Young
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Contributing Editor

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