Most people have never heard of Appcessories, but they’re set to become one of the biggest growth areas of the decade, with a potential market value of over $130 billion by 2020, as shown in the new report “To Ubiquity and Beyond”. Most analysts have missed them, as they’re made possible by the convergence of a set of disparate elements coming together, most notably the incorporation of Bluetooth Smart in mobile phones and tablets, low cost and easy to use silicon for hardware developers, and published APIs which allows developers of phone Apps to talk to connected devices. Throw in the innovation that is arising out of crowd-funding initiatives like Kickstarter and indiegogo and you have the ingredients for a new revolution in connected consumer goods.
What is an Appcessory? Think of a cuddly toy for your three year old which interacts with the story on her tablet. Think of the stylus you use for sketching on your iPad, where squeezing it changes the thickness or colour of the lines you’re painting. Or a motor and rudder you clip on a paper plane which lets you control its flight by tipping your smartphone from side to side. LED lights that come on when you enter the room, which you can program the colour of, or which even sense your mood from the way you’re walking. Armbands that know you’re about to point at the TV and tell it to change channel before you even move your finger. Clothes that tell you they need washing. Many things that until recently were the preserve of science fiction, but are about to become possible and eminently affordable.
There are certain products that I’ve always wanted to see appear on the market. Not necessarily because I want to have one, but because they appeal to the imagination and the concept of what it’s possible to do. One of these is the Bluetooth toilet. It’s a product I’ve suggested should exist in various presentations I’ve given over the years as an example of something that may initially sound silly, but could be quite useful. My argument is that amongst other things it could be a valid way of checking how often a toilet is used, which could be an early indicator for prostate cancer. Normally you can count on the Consumer Electronics Show – CES, which kicked off in Las Vegas this week, for some fairly off-the wall, wacky products, but as far as the Bluetooth toilet is concerned, someone else got in first.
The first company that I’m aware of to wirelessly enable a toilet was Greengoose, who have a sensor that you can fit to the toilet seat to determine whether or not it’s been left up by the most recent male user. They see it as a fun application, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, just before CES got going I came across a far more serious Bluetooth toilet from Lixil in Japan. There’s even a promotional video of it.
If you believe the futurologists, then the Internet of Things (IoT) is going to be the next big thing. Depending on who you listen to, by 2020 there will be up to 50 billion connected devices, an order of magnitude greater than the number of mobile phones. You can already see the start of that, whether it’s smart meters, connected information signs, or the increasing number of fitness devices, like Fitbit and Nike’s Fuel wristband. To get a better idea of what else may be emerging to make up that number, a good place to start is Kickstarter – the website for crowd-sourced funding. It shows that a significant number of potential start-ups are looking for money to produce a bewildering array of gateways and sensors.
It’s great that there is so much innovation going on in this area. I’ve been trying to help it take off for almost two decades and at last I can convincingly say it’s happening. But underneath the enthusiasm, I’m concerned that not enough attention is being given to security.
A few weeks ago, a speaker at a security conference in Australia talked about wireless attacks on pacemakers. Possibly because of the combined press frenzy around Superstorm Sandy, Obama’s re-election and Jimmy Savile, that piece of information wasn’t picked up by the mass media. At the same time, I’ve been playing with some of the latest consumer products that have come to market and found very little evidence of security. In fact, recent coverage in the technical press suggests there is a worrying feeling of complacency. I suspect that may be because wireless and end-to-end security is a new concept for many of the engineers designing IoT devices. But it is important that it makes its way onto the agenda, otherwise it may seriously impact the potential for growth.
The first question that most designers ask when adding wireless to their product is “which wireless standard to use?” In some cases, where it is connecting to an existing product, that’s easy to answer. If it’s not, it’s a lot more difficult. It’s one reason I wrote a book about it – to try and help designers answer that question. But another part of the same question is how well the different standards promote themselves as a solution?
This year has seen some major changes within some of those wireless standards. The ZigBee Alliance has lost Benno Ritter – for many years the global marketing face of ZigBee. And the Bluetooth SIG has replaced its Chairman, Mike Foley, as well as its CTO, Andy Glass. Both are interesting moves, as each of these standards is still evolving. ZigBee is taking on smart lighting, home automation and smart metering, whilst Bluetooth is finally seeing Bluetooth Smart appearing in the mainstream. In a recent issue of Incisor magazine, Vince Holton wrote about the loss of passion within the Bluetooth SIG – a sentiment that I’d echo and also extend to some of the other wireless standards. But that’s an opinion formed from being close to these groups. A few years ago I ran to survey to try and see what the general engineering opinion was of the different wireless standards. Prompted by Vince’s article, I thought it would be useful to run the survey again to see what designers think as we approach the end of 2012.
And then there were none. Last month Silicon Labs acquired Ember – the last independent ZigBee chip manufacturer. It’s good news for the Smart Metering industry as it’s secured a future for Ember, who have become the chip and protocol stack supplier of choice for a large proportion of smart meters, IHDs and home gateways in the market today. It’s not such good news for the investment community, as the $72 million initial consideration from SiLabs is a little short of the $89 million investment that had gone into Ember. But given the fire sales of the other ZigBee start-ups, it’s still not a bad result.
And it could be one of those excellent fits that don’t come along that often. For Silicon Labs, it extends their radio technology into the hotly contested 2.4GHz band, complementing their very capable sub-GHz range of EZRadio PRO chips. It also gives them what I’d consider to be the best ZigBee stack on the market. And it gives Ember what must be a very comforting degree of financial security as well as a ready made range of sub-GHz radios, just at the point where the UK and Japanese smart metering communities are looking at 868MHz.
But it’s not just Ember getting gobbled up. A few weeks later, Samsung quietly acquired Nanoradio – the Swedish specialist in low power Wi-Fi for mobile phones. Both Ember and Nanoradios played the standards card and had essentially become one trick wireless ponies – a fate common to many wireless start-ups. Perversely, CSR did the opposite thing today, by divesting itself of much of its location technology, (which it had acquired from SiRF), to Samsung, who seem to be getting rather good at acquiring bits of wireless technology. In doing so CSR moved itself back closer to its Bluetooth roots.
Although the prospect of an acquisition is the raison d’être of most wireless silicon start-ups, I wonder whether this flurry of activity indicates that we’re nearing an end-game? In which case, what comes next?
How much does it cost to produce a wireless standard? And how long does it take? Surprisingly those aren’t questions that are asked very often – probably because most developers are happy to use what already exists rather than starting again from scratch.
In the UK, some members of the smart metering programme have begun asking these questions, potentially for the wrong reasons. They’ve realised that ZigBee – the current front-runner for the UK smart metering deployment, can’t provide the range to cope with every single house or block of flats, and have started wondering about whether it might make sense to start again from scratch.
A few years ago, when I was writing my book on the Essentials of Short Range Wireless I attempted to put some numbers to those questions. It seems an appropriate time to publish them, as the answers are a lot more and a lot longer than most people think.