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Nest's bricking of Revolv serves as wake-up call to industry

Open source software and a DNS for the internet of things needed

The extraordinary decision of Nest to brick its $300 Revolv home automation hub has served as a wake-up call to the tech industry.

Both customers and the broader internet of things (IoT) industry were appalled when Nest removed all support for the device, making it as useful as a tub of hummus, as one angry consumer memorably noted.

The result has been a series of articles, blog posts and public discussions over how to ensure that the next generation of internet and smart-home products continues to work in an open environment and are not locked down to specific companies.

One IoT commentator, Paul Wallbank, argued in a highly cited post that the solution was to ensure that the IoT world became an open source one.

Noting that the decision to brick Revolv "undermines any confidence customers can have in Google's hardware offerings," Wallbank wrote that the fate of IoT depends on "keeping as much of the ecosystem as open as possible – the less vendor lock there is, the less hostage you are to rapacious manufactures."

He argues: "At least with an open source model, it's easier to build workarounds when faced with an uncooperative supplier and, in a world full of poorly designed IoT products, it's possible for the community to review the software and understand its bugs."

As we have repeatedly pointed out, the IoT industry is currently suffering under a weight of different and competing standards and formats. It's not a two-way fight like those between VHS and Betamax, or HD-DVD and Blu-ray, but more of a six-way rumble.

Wallbank argues that open platforms will at least "make it easier for devices to work together" and that "while open source software won't solve problems such as APIs and data feeds being closed or changed, it does give more power back to users and communities. It's not hard to understand why vendors, though, would resist these moves."

Old tech, new bottle

That sentiment was reiterated in another blog post – this time by the operator of the .uk top-level domain, Nominet.

Nominet's research and development team argue that what is needed is the equivalent of the internet's domain name system for IoT products.

It identifies the bigger problem as the hard coding of IoT devices to cloud services. "When a device is hard-coded to a specific service it is beholden to that service being available. If the company either goes bust or decides to stop running the service, then the product is rendered useless and the customer is left with a very expensive brick," the team notes.

It is, the post argues, "the equivalent of having a computer that can only visit a single website."

Like Wallbank, Nominet worries about the impact this will have on consumers. "Incidents like this can only make consumers wary and less inclined to buy IoT products in the future. This in turn will lead to fewer opportunities for IoT vendors and less potential for innovation in the IoT market generally," it writes.

That's why we need a DNS for IoT: "What is needed is a layer of abstraction between IoT devices and services, removing the need for hard-coding. On the good old internet, the Domain Name System (DNS) fulfills this task, providing mapping between the names of domains and locations of servers and thus decoupling the two."

Although Nominet would of course see the solution as something on which its entire expertise is based, it does make a fair point. The DNS has been an extraordinarily powerful and robust way of dealing with vast global banks of addresses. It makes sense to apply that to the millions of physical devices that are coming down the pipeline.

Nominet has of course been working on a solution: "We have taken this concept and applied it to the IoT, developing a system that uses DNS to route traffic between IoT devices and cloud services. This tool, called the IoT Registry, lets you remotely configure where your data is sent to, creating a more flexible IoT system that lets you avoid the pitfall currently faced by Google's customers."

We're back baby

The controversy may also open the door for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which has identified the creation of standards for IoT as the ideal way for it to regain its former glory in developing internet protocols and standards.

In the past decade, new internet standards have moved away from the august body and into smaller, more commercially driven groups, dominated by big tech firms.

The IETF thinks that the IoT world, with its need to communicate clearly and efficiency with a huge number of products from a large number of manufacturers, represents the ideal example of where a community-driven rather than vendor-driven standards process can work better and to everyone's benefit.

Based on sessions at the IETF's meeting this week in Buenos Aires, it seems that many internet engineers agree.

And you can bet that when Google's representatives show up to explain what direction standards should go, people won't be slow to remind them of the disastrous decision to kill Revolv, and the tipping point that it may have caused. ®

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