Is Verizon’s ThingSpace Really IoT or Is It “IONT?”

Verizon’s entry into the IoT space, via its “ThingSpace” API offering, has been covered by Light Reading and also released directly by Verizon.  The company is also opening its analytics engine for IoT use and making some network and pricing changes to accommodate IoT.  Verizon’s launch presentation on IoT properly characterizes IoT as a “Tower of Babel” and they promise to take the babel and complexity out of IoT.  It’s a bit early to say if this will happen, but let’s look at the approach and see what we can learn.

First and foremost, Verizon is like other operators (including rival AT&T) in seeing IoT through LTE-colored glasses.  On one hand that makes sense because Verizon is a network operator who sells services to connect things.  IoT as a connected set of devices is a market.  On the other hand, as I’ve pointed out, this directly-connected-devices vision cuts IoT adrift from the massive number of sensors and controllers already out there, connected with local and low-cost technology.

There’s no question that the IoT has enormous potential, but there is a lot of question about what specifically is feasible out of that vast pool of “potential”.  One thing I think hurts Verizon and most others in IoT is the notion Verizon called a “customer journey roadmap”, to guide people on the journey to IoT.

Why?  Because that shouldn’t be the journey at all.  In their presentation, Verizon is falling into the same trap we typically fall into with new technology development.  They make the means into the goal.  IoT is a mechanism that solves some business problems.  We need to focus first on the business problems, or opportunities, that we might apply IoT to, and from that focus derive their needs and cost tolerance.

ThingSpace, Verizon’s stated on-ramp into IoT, is built around the notion of new devices, directly connected.  The APIs published at this point relate to connection management for these directly connected devices, but Verizon is promising to expand these APIs to the thousands, and we’d hope that some of these new APIs step beyond this specific LTE-and-connected-devices mission.  Maybe they will, but Verizon’s presentation spends a lot of time talking about the IoT being built around the WAN, and they explicitly deprecate those local device attachment strategies that have already deployed literally billions of sensors and controllers.

There are, in my view, three elements to a complete LTE solution.  One is the device-connectivity portion that gets sensors and controllers into accessible form, connected to “IoT” as an abstraction.  Another is the set of applications that will draw on data and exercise control, and the final piece is that core abstraction that represents IoT to the applications.

A software developer, looking at IoT, would say that you should never build based on the connectivity abstraction for the simple reason that connectivity isn’t what you’re trying to find out about.  The fact is that an IoT application should never care about how the sensor or controller is connected.  They have to care about whether they can access it, how that is done, and how they can exploit it.

You can draw this.  Take a blank sheet of paper and do a big oval in the middle, labeling it “IoT Core Abstraction”.  Now put another small oval overlapping at the bottom and call it “Sensor/Controller Management”.  You complete the picture by drawing an oval overlapping at the top and labeling it “Applications”.

My view is that if we have industrial sensors and controllers in the hundreds of millions, it would make sense to prioritize drawing these into the IoT Core Abstraction.  Most residential control and all industrial control networks have gateways to make them accessible externally, including via the Internet.  If you presume that all sensors populate a database with information, via their Sensor/Controller Management elements, then you can add directly connected devices through their own (new) Sensor/Controller Management links.  The result is a kind of populated abstraction, which is how IoT should really be visualized.

Verizon might be seeing this in the long run, because they’re also talking about their analytics engine, which in their material they relate to “big data”.  That in my view relates it to a repository, and that then gives a face to the abstraction that forms the core of IoT.  It’s a big-data repository.  It’s populated with data from external elements, which include that directly connected stuff Verizon’s focusing on.  In short, this analytics engine might be the thing Verizon needs, and if Verizon positions it correctly then third-party developers could use APIs to introduce the information from those deprecated sensor architectures Verizon mentions, and jumpstart the utility of the whole concept.

So Verizon might be doing the right thing?  Yes, but I’m concerned by the fact that they’ve made such an explicit commitment to the new-device, LTE-connection model.  If you look at technologies like SDN and NFV, you’ll see that we’ve lost a lot of time and utility by having vendors pick approaches that were good for them but essentially shortsighted or even stupid by the standards of the opportunity overall.

Why would Verizon, who like most operators is very interested in home security and control, not want to link their ThingSpace to current in-home security/control architectures?  Most homes that want such capability already have stuff in place, and they’re unlikely to trash their investment (which in many cases is in the thousands of dollars) to jump into an “IoT” model of the same thing.

Verizon’s launch presentation included a comment that they had to find the “IoT Easy Button”.  Well, expecting every sensor and controller to have an independent WAN-based IoT Internet connection isn’t easy.  What this approach would do is place Verizon at a cost disadvantage versus every current technology sensors use.  These are in-building and incrementally free, and in many cases use low-power technologies that will live a year on a nine-volt battery.  The average upscale suburban connected home has twenty sensors and controllers.  Does Verizon propose to sell a hundred-dollar device for each of these, and then collect even reduced wireless fees per month?  I don’t think the average suburban user will accept that.

As it was presented, ThingSpace isn’t IoT, it’s the “Internet of New Things.”  Yes, Verizon might be thinking of shifting their focus more broadly, but if that’s the case why trash the technology options that are now in place and would eventually have to be accommodated to create acceptable early costs for buyers?  If they come around after a year or two, having exposed both their strategy and the fatal cost limitation to its adoption, will all the companies who now sell home and industrial control have sat on their hands and done nothing?  Not likely, nor is it likely that OTT companies won’t have seen the value of being a truly universal IoT Core Abstraction.

Maybe this is an important point even beyond IoT.  Here we are with revolutionary SDN and NFV, and operators are fixated on using them to do the same tired crap we can already do with legacy elements.  How much of our technology opportunities are fouled by a greedy fixation on the current business model?  Operators, with IoT, have an opportunity to look at selling something above their usual connectivity bit-pushing.  This same kind of revolutionary opportunity was presented with the Internet and operators booted it to the OTTs.  Will they do that with IoT now?  I think Verizon is perilously close to committing to that very thing.