'Twas Brillo but then Android Things, which watched as Google Weaved its Nest

The Internet of Google Things

Google bikes outside Google HQ. Photo by Randy Miramontez/Shutterstock - for editorial use only.

Comment Google has launched the developer preview of Android Things, updating and rebranding the Brillo IoT operating system which was unveiled over a year ago.

Designed for medium-complexity devices, like home hubs, thermostats, and security cameras, the stripped-down version of Android has had zero success in the market. The new push, under a new name, aims to change that, and push the OS as the answer for developers of consumer-oriented IoT devices.

A key component will be the ability to push images and over-the-air updates to Android Things devices, a key security requirement for the IoT, and one that appears to be a core feature of the updated OS.

With Google able to push all mandatory updates to IoT devices, this would be a promising step forward for consumer IoT equipment – which has been plagued by headlines recently. It’s also in stark contrast to Android updates for smartphones, which suffer from a complete mess of different vendor and carrier barriers to the transmission of security fixes.

Along with its Weave framework, Google is again using Android to position itself at the heart of the devices, by providing the cloud infrastructure and applications that add value to the devices and so generate traffic which can be monetized.

The developer preview of Android Things supports Intel’s Edison, NXP’s Pico and the Raspberry Pi 3 on the hardware side. Qualcomm has announced that it expects the OS to be deployed on its Snapdragon platform in 2017, and while it was quick to issue a statement of support, it appears that Android Things isn’t running on Snapdragon SoCs currently – though of course, Qualcomm will soon own NXP and its Pico line.

Android Things will allow developers to tie their devices into Google’s services, using the normal Android Studio SDK – an apparent improvement on Brillo, which had a different development environment.

The challenges of a unified IoT platform

Brillo was launched as a lightweight Android-based operating system for devices, aimed at speeding up development time given the industry’s collective experience with Android. However, it appears that there has been almost no traction in the market for the OS, and its developer mailing lists are very quiet – not a good sign for a project that was positioned as the future for smart home devices.

But not even Google seemed inclined to use the OS. Its smart thermostat subsidiary Nest didn’t use it in its own devices, and Google’s new Home and WiFi products passed on the OS too – opting for Chromecast System Software, which is based on both Android and Chrome OS.

It remains to be seen how far Google unifies its software platforms for its various hub and medium-scale IoT devices, though the common Android roots should help create a somewhat more harmonized developer base in future.

And there was some indication that the search giant wants to get its IoT house in order, and preempt some of the Android fragmentation problems which have plagued the smartphone version. Also announced was the overhaul of Nest – the underwhelming subsidiary that decided to publish its own version of Weave (Nest Weave) in order to link its thermostats and cameras to other ecosystems. Nest’s software development team is now being merged into Google, a step towards commonality, but also a sign of how far the iconic smart home business has fallen.

Meanwhile Weave, launched at the same time as Brillo, is a communications framework that dictates how compatible connected devices speak to each other via Google’s cloud (mostly), and also to the outside world.

It takes a different approach to the other prominent connectivity and discovery frameworks, the OCF’s IoTivity and AllSeen Alliance’s AllJoyn, now merged. That combined platform is more focused on the device discovery and communication aspects of IoT devices, so that a node is able to discover other nodes on a local network. Weave is aimed more at the upper layers of the stack, in the applications themselves, and therefore the cloud-focused interactions. However, in the IoT, the cloud is getting closer and closer to the network edge, so one day these cloud interactions might end up taking place in the local networks (especially if local networks expand in physical footprint).

Weave is also getting a public device SDK, and its current schema support for a small group of devices (outlets, light bulbs and switches, thermostats) is being expanded to add new devices “soon” - and will include an iOS mobile API (application programming interface). Currently, Google says Philips Hue and Samsung’s SmartThings are using Weave to connect to its Google Assistant service, with Belkin’s WeMo, LiFX, Honeywell, Wink, TP-Link, First Alert, and more” also pursuing Weave adoption.

Notably, there was no mention of Fuchsia, a super-lightweight OS for micro-IoT devices that is not based on the Linux kernel which powers Android. Unveiled in August, there hasn’t been much news of development progress since, but Fuchsia is pretty expandable – meaning that it could potentially be the foundation of a non-Linux version of Android, for more complex devices, in future.

That would fit in with the nascent trend to move away from Linux as the default basis of IoT operating systems, and learn more lessons from the really stripped-back real time OSs. However, if Fuchsia did move to the same type of devices on which Android and Chrome OS reside, there would be further confusion and potential fragmentation in the Google ecosystem. For now, though, the Android Things brand and supporting updates suggest a real effort to present a functional and unified platform during 2017.

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