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Britain’s best unknown tech business ARM Holdings is being bought by Japan’s SoftBank on the back of the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT). But what is IoT, and what has a chip designer like ARM got to do with it?
What is the Internet of Things?
The idea behind IoT is to create a home where everything is connected to the internet, creating “swarm intelligence” from individually dumb devices. Bins, toasters, washing machines and lights will be able to talk to each other for automatic, more efficient control and monitoring.
But IoT also describes the use of sensors and smart devices in the wider environment to automate processes and give information to human operators, such as roads that alert drivers to spots of black ice or recycling bins that tell the council when to pick them up.
What sort of things can can you get?
IoT is still in its infancy, but there is a small collection of consumer devices and a few commercial devices that actually link into the wider world.
The best known IoT devices are smart thermostats, such as Nest’s Learning Thermostat, and lighting systems, of which Philips Hue and Lightwave RF are the best known in the UK.
Other devices include electronic locks, home-security cameras, various sensors for temperature, humidity, water, motion and open or close states. Various smart plug sockets are also available that allows users to turn lamps and other non-smart devices on and off remotely.
The internet fridge was always the poster child of IoT, but home appliances are only starting to be available with IoT built in. Smartwashers, driers, dishwashers, bathroom scales, robot vacuum cleaners, fans and, yes, fridges, are starting to come to market that can talk to each other and to the owner.
What can you do with IoT?
Broadly speaking, IoT devices fall into two categories: true consumer devices and DIY automation systems.
Smart-thermostats, cameras, scales, gadgets to help you sleep and other devices, which are easy to install and use either in isolation or together with other bits through an app or syncing service, are commonly available through traditional retailers.
But with various sensors and interconnected systems available, much more advanced setups can be built using more specialist equipment and universal protocols such as Z-wave or ZigBee, which allow disparate devices to communicate wirelessly without Wi-Fi or the internet. Almost anything from IoT security systems to automatic lighting, advanced power management and status monitoring, from bins to pantries, can be created, although some need the skills of an electrician and coders.
Who are the big players?
The biggest brands in the consumer IoT space include Samsung, with appliances and its SmartThings IoT hub, Alphabet’s Nest, Google and Amazon, whose IoT Echo speaker – which is capable of commanding other devices via voice – has proved popular in the US.
Behind many of these devices, however, are low-power chip makers and embedded operating system vendors. Google’s Brillo, for instance, is a cut-down version of Android for IoT devices, while low-power processors built using ARM designs are popular because of their electrical efficiency.
What are the challenges facing IoT?
While many connected devices are available to buy, not many of them can actually talk to devices made by other brands, and when they do their interaction is limited. Each device comes with its own smartphone app, rather than there being one to control them all. Companies such as Google, Nest, Apple and Samsung are attempting to provide a bridge between devices, but a unified system is sorely needed.
There is also the challenge of privacy and security. IoT devices that were originally conceived to be used in isolation or within the home without connecting to the internet are now being exposed to the wider world and can be ripe for criminal attack.
If appropriate security measures are not taken, a hacker who gains access to the data flowing around your home could turn the sensors and appliances into snooping devices.
What’s ARM’s link to it?
ARM Holdings is a designer of mobile and low-power chips that can be found in devices such as smartphones, smartTVs, smartwatches, tablets and various other computing devices. These chips can also be found in many of the IoT devices, the servers that connect them to the wider internet and the devices used to control them.
ARM doesn’t actually fabricate the processors, but its designs are used by companies all over the globe, including Apple, Samsung and Qualcomm, and used to drive devices all over the home and in the wider world. As the IoT expands, the demand for low-power chips is only likely to increase.