The Emerging Operating System for the Internet of Things

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It’s widely recognized that the iPhone revolutionized the smartphone market and was instrumental in ushering in a new era in mobile computing. But, it’s not so widely recognized that iPhone also triggered a seismic shift in the operating system landscape. As iPhones and iPads proliferated, Apple’s iOS rapidly became the basis for a significant share of online activity. Together with Android, these mobile OSs have, in a very short period of time, become essential to our digital experience.

A similar phenomenon is unfolding as the “Internet of Things” (IoT) shifts from aspirational buzzword to a concrete and lucrative market.

There are many definitions for the Internet of Things, but a convenient way to think about it is simply that any device that can be connected to the Internet, either as a source or consumer of data and instructions, will be connected to the Internet. This includes wearable computing devices such as smartwatches, fitness devices and Google Glass. Internet-connected devices in the home – thermostats, smart lights and so on – also represent a nascent market, but one that is consuming an incredible amount of venture and strategic investment. Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of smart thermostat startup Nest is a case in point.

These new-generation computing devices require new types of operating systems and networks.  While many have been initially based on some variation of the Linux OS and connect using existing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless protocols, new operating systems and networking protocols are emerging.  

For instance, Wi-Fi connections consume too much power for devices like watches or thermostats, which are not connected to mains power and which cannot incorporate long life batteries. Furthermore, most home routers will not be able to accommodate the large number of devices that are implied by a fully automated home.  Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) has a more suitable power consumption profile, but has insufficient range coverage for most homes. 

ZigBee is a protocol for creating a local area network using very small transmitters that have low power consumption, but greater ranges than BLE.  The resulting networks can “mesh” – creating a sort of ad-hoc peer-based network that doesn’t require a centralized network hub.  ZigBee is widely implemented within many electrical “smart meters,” theoretically allowing for home automation to respond to power demand data (turning down the air-conditioning if the power consumption spiked, for instance).  A lot of popular home automation devices (Nest thermostat, Phillips Hue smart lights) incorporate Zigbee. 

Z-wave is very similar to Zigbee in terms of capabilities, but, because it is managed by a single vendor, it provides somewhat more consistent interoperability, both with other devices and with home automation software.  Z-wave is somewhat more widely deployed than Zigbee, though mostly with older devices.

The operating system of choice for both wearable and home automation devices generally has been some variant of Linux – often an Android derivative.  There are definite signs of a new OS war heating up, however, particularly in the emerging battle for the smartwatch owners’ hearts, minds and wrists.  The most popular smartwatch to date is the Pebble, which uses a variation of FreeRTOS (Free Real Time OS).  Samsung’s Gear 2 smartwatch runs on the Tizen OS, which is a Linux-based Android alternative sponsored by Samsung, Intel and others. Meanwhile, Google recently announced Android Wear – a version of Android optimized for wearable devices including, but not limited to, smartwatches. 

Apple may be late to the party, but is expected to arrive dressed to kill.  Wearable devices have shown limited uptake, in part because of somewhat “geeky” form factors.  A stylish Apple smartwatch could rapidly become dominant in the segment, propelling whatever Apple OS runs the device into a leading position, and further inflaming the battle for OS dominance.