Free smart fridges! App stores in fountains! Plus more from Canonical man

This is an entirely sensible view of the near future. Cough

dog noses around in fridge. photo by Shutterstock
Has this dog used the fridge's app store to order more food yet? Pic: Shutterstock

“What if you need to update 50 million hairdryers and something goes wrong? How can you roll it back?” Thus spake Maarten Ectors, Canonical’s Internet of Things veep, who painted a picture of an IoT future where your fridge will be taken away from you unless you constantly use it as a smart app store.

“From a security perspective, you can't have the industry just let default passwords go. You can't have an industry where you don’t update things after you ship them. You can’t have a complex thing where if you find a bug, that breaks something and you have to roll it back. We need to help people make that easy. Otherwise we’re reinventing the wheel,” continued Ectors.

Speaking to The Register at last week’s IoT Tech Expo in London, Ector explained that he sees small, inexpensive machines such as the Raspberry Pi as “supercomputers”.

“You can easily see that we need some new economical models. Companies have been making money from hardware but in the £1 [per device] market there’s no margin for that.

“You could put an app store into elevators,” he continued, in all seriousness. “Or, take security: if someone gets a mask and gun out you want to shut the [lift] doors; if someone faints you call a doctor, etc. We will change the complete economic model.”

Canonical’s Ubuntu Core, version 16 of which was released in October, is the firm’s chief OS offering for the Internet of Things. Its key feature is Snaps, an app container system for making apps run on other distributions without needing to rewrite the app for each one. Ectors said: “All the tools to run them are also open source. What this means is every developer now is in control of making their own apps for any device and what we’re going to launch in 2017 is ‘run your own app store.’”

Ectors is also, naturally enough, keen to emphasis the security aspects of the operating system.

“In Ubuntu Core we have transactional upgrades by default. If you make an upgrade, you can go back. Devops for devices is possible. You can get an automated system: ‘Here’s a fix for a 0-day, test if everything’s working’. You can go from a three month update cycle to rolling it out every day.

“We treat every app as criminal until proven innocent,” he continued. “We know there’s bad people who enter technological fields before everyone else. That’s what criminals do. Apps are contained and can’t do anything we haven’t told them they can do.”

When a developer gets a Snap, said Ectors, he must define that it “does this, this and this... if it even tries to do something it shouldn’t do, it gets killed and restarted. Imagine you make a Snap and it has a memory leak that can be exploited. If your Snap controls a Bluetooth device and is unauthorised, and someone can do code injection, and it can steal something else, the OS can kill it because that wasn’t in the original contract. If you make a snap and it’s doing things its not meant to, then you’re not able to attack other Snaps or the OS.”

Ectors’ view is that Canonical’s drive towards app stores will pay dividends by allowing “thousands of developers to create apps” along with a ready-made marketplace for them. He even sees future mobile phone base stations having app stores embedded in them.

With all these grand visions of the future apparently being just round the corner, who’s paying for everything?

“Everyone can render an app store,” Ectors replied. “Canonical will give you one and get some revenue share, or we’ll charge you for having a more advanced version. We’ll get some money frmo everybody and that way we can make sure that all the rest stays open source.”

“We’re an operating system company but we’re in the magical position between software and hardware. What we’re focusing on is showing people that there’s these new possibilities, talking to hardware vendors, owning their own devices, talking to ISPs on apps and how they can sell them. We’re talking to system integrators to get apps, get the hardware together and create this whole ecosystem. A virtual circle of partners that each bring their customers from all the other partners,” he continued.

Ectors also revealed that Dell and Intel are two of Canonical’s key IoT partners, and Dell had a beta version of Ubuntu Core 16 running on its Dell Edge Gateways last year. In particular he singles out Intel for “training their hardware ecosystem” . “There’s something called ROS, Robotics OS, the most used abstraction platform for robotics in the world,” added Ectors. “It’s used for toy robots and industrial robots. We’re working with them on app stores for robots.”

Rather alarmingly, this fixation with putting app stores into things that really shouldn’t have app stores in them also extends to industrial technology.

“If you want to make elevators, traffic lights, fountains and any [other] machinery intelligent, look at the thing that scales. PLCs are programmed with OPC [or with] ladder logic and other things that haven’t changed since the 1980s. Every PLC company has their own dialect that isn’t compatible. We’re thinking that basically means 90 per cent of developers in the world can’t program a PLC. That’s a shame,” said Ectors, not unreasonably.

Then he says: “That’s why we’re open sourcing with PLCs. Now you can, all of a sudden, make those elevators and fountains do all the things you couldn’t do yesterday. We think the Industrial Internet of Things, combined with IoT edge gateways, will have the biggest impact. Then the IoT gateways will be on a higher level than all these orchestrators.”

Standards? Yeah, they’re for oldies living in the past

What is Canonical doing about the ongoing IoT standards bunfight? Who is it throwing its lot in with?

“There’s an app for that,” joked Ectors. “Large conglomerates come together over 10 years and define hardware. We afterwards document how they did it. That’s how we’re seeing the Dockers of this world go.”

“You shouldn’t today pick your standards because whatever you pick, you’ll pick wrong,” he cautioned. “You need to have a platform where sensor and action, cloud integration is just a pathway.”

Does this approach amount to a de facto standard from Canonical?

“That’s why it’s open source,” nodded Ectors. “That’s why we’re giving it to the community and allowing different OSes to compete around it. Drinking our own champagne rather than eating our own dog food.”

The mad future where your fridge’s built-in app store rules your life

“Instead of spending £2,000 on a fridge, why not have a smart fridge sold to you as food-as-a-service? You pay 20p a day for a cool fridge. The day that fridge breaks down you get £100 a day because you’re not getting the service you paid for. A smart contract could do that.”

Despite his vision of putting “app stores” into everything from municipal fountains right up to PLCs, Ectors sees this as a means of radically shaking up the world as we know it, taking the Internet of Things from its stable industrial control system M2M heritage into a terrifying future where even municipal architecture can accidentally order dolls’ houses by eavesdropping on you.

Ever enthusiastic, Ectors waxed lyrical: “I could ask my fridge for recommendations for a pizza place. I could take it further and have app stores for nothing to do with the fridge. Say Pokemon Go. Could make the whole house go crazy. Allows this fridge manufacturer to bring down the cost of running that fridge and at the end, they might give me the fridge for free as long as I keep ordering things and paying for apps.”

“They will change how the fridge is built,” he continued, undaunted by your correspondent’s raised eyebrow. “They don’t want it to break after 8 years, it’ll cost £100/month. They’ll want it to last for 25 years. They’ll want to fix it before it breaks. The redesign of the fridge is completely different. All of a sudden i go from a world where I pay £2,000 for a fridge to a free fridge that gives me better service.”

When will this world of super-demanding fridges become reality, then?

“MWC” [Mobile World Congress], smiled Ectors. “We’re going to show how this vision of open source hardware that is a fraction of the price of every other solution is more innovative and revenue-generating.”

In terms of Ubuntu Core, its backers include IBM, Dell, Intel, Linaro and the Open Source Robotics Foundation. Red Hat was listed as validating Snaps, though by last year progress on that was still slow. ®


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