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Leverage the cloud to create useful, better smart home systems

Enterprise architects can simplify consumers' lives by using the cloud to weave IoT devices to create better, more useful smart home functionality.

Enterprise architects need to consider how the cloud will weave together internet of things devices to create useful smart home functionality. At the Connections Conference in San Francisco, experts explored some of the different approaches for making separate smart devices work together to make consumers' lives easier. This will help drive adoption of smart devices, from tech-savvy early adopters to the much larger market of mainstream consumers.

Kimmo Ruotoistenmäki, CEO and co-founder at Finland-based Cozify, said, "The IoT brings a huge number of smart devices to the home. But usually, they just provide their own app, and so users have to control them through side-loaded applications. As a result, people end up with the clutter on their smart phones."

At the moment, vendors are providing one-off devices, like smart thermostats, lighting controllers, locks and window shades. These products often come with a mobile application for monitoring and controlling the devices. The end result is managing a collection of devices can be time-consuming to set up and maintain, making them less desirable for the average consumer. A variety of cloud-enabled back ends are being developed to help automate the coordination of routines spanning internet of things (IoT) devices in the smart home systems, including IFTTT, Yonomi and Cozify. Users can then set up and manage these routines using mobile, web and voice interfaces, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Create routines to reduce complexity

Programming one-off devices can be a pain for consumers. It's not practical to expect the average consumer to program hundreds of separate devices. Kent Dickson, co-founder and CEO of Yonomi, said, "The home becomes smarter when the devices work together such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Smart device makers need to be aware of the danger of overwhelming users. The consumer has to pay attention to more things to program. "The innovation in the smart home is about making life convenient for what people are doing. If someone is watching TV, the smart home could be smart enough to dim the lights," Cozify's Ruotoistenmäki said.

Enterprise architects need to think about how to tie multiple services together using higher-level programming constructs that may cross IoT devices and cloud services from different providers. These higher-level abstractions allow consumers to think more in terms of the ambiance they want to create for different times of the day, or in response to events. The cloud services have different names to describe these programming constructs. Yonomi calls them routines. IFTTT calls them recipes. Amazon Alexa refers to them as skills.

Use the cloud to crowdsource recipes

Enterprise developers can plan for the most obvious use cases for making smart things work together. However, it can be challenging to identify all of the use cases. Enterprises should consider crowdsourcing better routines by leveraging the experience of the more technically inclined users. "The wisdom of the crowds helps the next person," Dickson said.

One strategy is to make the devices and applications more accessible to the various cloud-based IoT orchestration platforms to do this. IFTTT has about 300 direct integrations today. Yonomi currently supports about 60. However, these companies are also making it easier to weave in other integrations to different classes of devices. The vision is a consumer device company could leverage the Yonomi platform to discover other devices in the home to create more sophisticated routines.

There are about 8 million users on IFTTT at the moment, running approximately a billion recipes per month. Some of the most common categories of routines on IFTTT today include notifications, social sharing, archiving and connecting IoT devices. "Right now, the process of connecting things together is not easy. But these early adopters are willing to do the work to make this happen. As we move to the next stage, things have to be simple, since the average mainstream users will not do that work," said Justin Wong, vice president of business development at IFTTT Inc., based in San Francisco.

Be prepared for new problems

Part of the challenge is it is hard to identify how IoT devices will be used by other applications as part of the smart home systems. "To create more value, you have to be more interactive with the rest of the ecosystem. Well-supported APIs are the key to that. A lot of device makers were thinking they could control the user experience all the way through," Yonomi's Dickson said.

One of the big concerns with linking smart homes applications lies in preparing for unexpected use cases. Enabling a user to start their dinner as they leave work sounds good on the surface, but could start a fire if they are delayed in traffic.

IoT makers need to be prepared to address dangerous use cases as they arise. "There are edge cases that people will discover. You have to have a way of dealing with edge cases as part of offering the service. There might be positive use that you didn't intend. But if safety and security issues arise, you have to address that," IFTTT's Wong said.

Plan for different interfaces

The cloud promises to be a big enabler for the smart home systems as a way of leveraging new user interfaces, like smartphones and voice interfaces. Opening up the APIs to IoT devices and the services for leveraging them is important to be able to prepare for this change.

The current IoT infrastructure landscape is fragmented, with dozens of alliances, standards and protocols from which to choose. But Dickson recommended enterprises don't wait for the right ecosystem. "We see enterprises getting wrapped around the axle about what ecosystem to embrace. The choice of radio and protocol are important, but not world-ending, and thinking too much about it could just slow you down. The more important thing is that you choose one, and even if that ecosystem does not materialize, the industry will solve the integration problem."

A good practice is to think about the API for IoT devices and applications as a fundamental aspect of the service. IFTTT's Wong said there is a cost to this in terms of resources, but this brings a richer set of opportunities for customer engagement. Often, enterprises focus on a particular use case of a product, but Wong said, "Thinking of the API as an ongoing service will provide more value in the long run."

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