Monday, April 27, 2015

The Animal Farm of Things

(This article originally appeared in the Smart Grid Library blog on March 27, 2015)
I'm prone to literary and cinematic allusions, sometimes those allusions are obscure, or at odd angles to the main topic, so for those of you who are confused already, bear with me.

I have been immersed increasingly in the Internet of Things discussion, and trying to understand how it relates to Smart Grid and specifically Demand Response. Since Demand Response requires information connectivity, it appears, on the surface at least, as though there is a natural convergence there. Appearances can be deceiving.

Most people, even those who have never read the book and don't know the source of the statement, know at least one sentence from George Orwell's Animal Farm:

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

In the Internet of Things discussion, the same kind of reality has struck me in recent weeks:

In the Internet of Things, all things are equal, but some things are more equal than others.

What do I mean by that? Most of the things being discussed in the IoT world have some common characteristics:

  • They are generally small.
  • They are generally intended to be portable.
  • They are generally low-power draw.
  • They are generally relatively luxury items.
  • They have high “gee whiz” or “Oooooooh, Shiny” factor.
  • They have an entertainment orientation or angle.
  • They can tolerate (indeed, the business models often require) high turnover.
  • They are designed for constant interaction.
  • A lack of reliability is tolerable. (Grandma won't die if the web browser on her tablet fails.)

This is where there is a disconnect between the worlds of the Internet of Things and Demand Response. What are the common factors in what makes a Thing a “Demand Response Thing.”

  • They are generally large.
  • They are generally stationary.
  • They are generally high-power draw.
  • They are generally in all households (or at least very many).
  • They have zero “gee whiz” or “Oooooooh, Shiny” factor.
  • They are utilitarian, with little or no entertainment value.
  • They can serve a single buyer for 15 – 25 years (and often more).
  • They are designed to be pretty much left alone once installed.
  • Reliability is more important. (If the A/C quits on a hot summer day, Grandma could well die.)

Let's face it, we use the term “appliance” to mean something that you install and ignore.1

So, in nearly every way that matters, an “IoT Thing” is different from a “DR Thing.” So where is the convergence? The convergence comes where your “DR Things” need to coordinate with your “IoThings” and use the network that is common in the home, whatever that is. This is going to mean some commonality between the worlds of “things”.

  • with the IoT world being “high turnover” and the DR world being “low turnover” there is a good chance that some upgrade somewhere along the way will break that coordination. You can do firmware upgrades, but if the fundamental communication platform changes, firmware won't fix it.
  • Not everything in the IoT universe is using the same kind of network. Look at what Lowes has to go through to cobble together their Iris system. Note that they had to build a complete testing and certification capability for Iris, covering 3 completely different protocols. It reminds me of a line from the Nicholas Cage / Tommy Lee Jones flick Firebirds:2
    • Cage: I'm doing it!
    • Jones: But it's ugly.

What is needed for the Internet of DR Things is a way to make a product that can sit there being ignored for 25 years, while communications technologies change, and still be able to communicate with whatever is in the home at the time.

A lot of people point to WiFi as a solution, since the WiFi Alliance has been careful about backward compatibility. There are problems with that backward compatibility, which I explain elsewhere. The hitch is that the backward compatibility comes at a price.

So, how does the manufacturer of a long-life device make sure that it can keep talking and listening in an IoT world of rapid turnover and changing technologies? Simple: Make it modular.

For those of you not old enough to remember when WiFi was a new thing and people kept computers more than a year or two, laptop computers all had a standard PCMCIA port. When you needed to connect to a network, you plugged in the right modular card, from any manufacturer, over any protocol, and off you went.

We can do the same thing for our long-lived DRThings. There's a standard for that, you know....

I was discussing this article with someone at a conference as I was writing it, and he made a good point: The future of the Internet of Things may be less interaction. Rather than controlling everything with your phone, your home will pretty much know what you want without being told. Everything will act more like an appliance. (For you Star Trek: Next Generation fans, think of Jean-Luc saying “Tea” and the computer knowing that he wants “Earl Grey, Hot” rather than him having to specify it. Every. Single. Time.)
The big tension in this movie is that Cage's character is right handed, but left-eye dominant, which makes his eyeballs incompatible with the HUD in an Apache helicopter, which shows all vital information in the right eye, making this a more apt analogy than it seems at first.

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