The internet of things (IoT) is expanding day by day, but to become a truly global phenomenon, it would need to have internationally recognized protocols. Don’t hold your breath, experts tell Cybernews.
A recent study undertaken by Technavio found that a “lack of standardization and interoperability among various IoT technologies and platforms” would likely stall the progress of the industry over the next five years.
“IoT systems require complex networks of devices, sensors, and apps to communicate effectively with each other,” it said. “However, the lack of globally recognized standards for IoT connectivity and interoperability has created fragmentation and concerns about compatibility and interoperability across various platforms and devices.”
Cybernews reached out to industry experts, drawing comparisons between the international adoption of English as the common language of aviation in the 20th century. As arbitrary and unfair this might have seemed to many outside the Anglophone world, what workable alternative was there to ensure safe and effective air traffic control systems?
To be clear, the IoT, essentially the extension of the internet into everyday devices such as a smart fridge, ring camera, or printer, may not be as dependent on global consensus as aviation – flying people safely from one part of the world to another is of course more important than getting an American-made digital television to work in, say, China.
But if a similar consensus isn’t adopted, the burgeoning industry in web-connected devices might run into a few roadblocks along the way. That said, consensus itself faces no few obstacles.
IoT: a digital Tower of Babel
The world has changed since the postwar period when aviation standards were agreed and consensus – whether leveraged by power or not – is somewhat harder to come by. Charles Chow, head of marketing tech at Lumen Asia Pacific, doubts the IoT will have its version of English standardization any time soon.
The reason? There are just too many competing tech powers nowadays, not to mention the multiplicity of companies working to their own individuated blueprints. To put it another way, the internet of many things is also an internet of many languages, and outside of technology experts, they aren’t widely spoken.
“One of the central challenges of the IoT market is the sheer scope of potential technologies,” he says. “IoT encompasses everything from smart devices for the home to industrial and logistics integrations. Many industries have individual technology standards, which make creating global standards difficult. Equally, superpowers like Russia, China, and the US will all want their standards to become the global default.”
Chow adds: “Aviation English was founded in the 1940s when [British imperial] decolonization efforts were only beginning. In 2023, anglocentrism is no longer a default, making a similar arrangement in technology complex to negotiate.”
This led to the International Civil Aviation Organization recommending English as the common language of the skies, which was essentially to become a specialized set of jargon terms used by pilots and ground control crews worldwide. A breakthrough in international relations, one might say – and one that’s not easily replicated.
Divided by language and politics
And the situation with the IoT could become more complex still. The global schism provoked by Russia’s fateful decision to attack Ukraine raised the specter of the splinternet. Not that such fears didn’t exist before February last year – a fragmented world wide web is something Vladimir Putin appears to have had his eye on before he sent troops across the border, if reports about his regime’s experiments with RuNet since 2019 are anything to go by.
“The importance of technology to our daily realities also provokes a threat from splinternet cells,” says Chow. “It would be nearly impossible to persuade countries around the globe to default to a tech standard that does not originate from their own government. Over-reliance on one standard or technology could also lead to vulnerabilities and international crises, as was seen with Log4J back in 2021.”
Lou Reverchuk, CEO of tech company EchoGlobal, is inclined to agree. “Regarding the threat of a splinternet, it's a significant concern,” he says. “If major powers prioritize their geopolitical or economic interests over global collaboration, we might see a more fragmented digital world. This not only impedes the global growth of IoT but also poses challenges in areas like cybersecurity, data privacy, and global trade.”
Reverchuk believes that the best answer to the problem could be an international agreement on standards. But what would this look like? “Agreeing on certain foundational protocols and frameworks that ensure interoperability,” as he suggests, sounds all well and good in theory, but how does that work in practice? As is so often the case in tech, questions abound but no definitive answers exist just yet.
Lack of consensus stalling solutions
At any rate, Riverchuk doesn’t see any kind of solution that would work as neatly as the universal adoption of English in air traffic control systems materializing any time soon.
“I believe that for a fully functioning worldwide IoT to become an everyday reality, some form of global standardization is necessary, analogous to the English-language standard in air traffic control,” he allows. “However, the nature of this standardization may not be as singular as choosing a language.”
And therein lies the problem. Standardization, by definition, implies some form of singularity. In the context of regulating a myriad of internet-enabled devices globally, this suggests a mutual agreement by powers to adopt one mode of communication, even if arbitrarily determined, for the greater good.
A glance at global events will tell even the layperson that clear communication and focus on the greater good are not top of mind for today’s competing superpowers. As such, while the IoT is clearly not going anywhere, it may also not be going as many places as its advocates would wish it to.
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