Introduction and IoT apps
The Internet of Things is a mess, with standards and protocols up in the air and almost every tech company on the planet claiming that it’s their language that the future IoT will rely on. Who wants separate apps to control lighting, heating, security cameras, the TV and the hi-fi?
Whether we need yet another wannabe Internet of Things platform promising to be the unifier is questionable, but there’s no doubt that Google’s Brillo – a new operating system for low-powered devices that will shortly be previewed to developers – could be the platform that at last brings standardisation to the IoT.
What is Google Brillo?
Google Brillo is all about the smart home. Announced at Google’s I/O 2015, Brillo is a lightweight, rather basic backbone for the IoT that will both integrate with Android devices and support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy. It will link IoT gadgets (many of which have tiny processors, so need a rudimentary OS) with each other, with phones and tablets, and with the cloud. "Brillo aims to reduce friction in the IoT application ecosystem, making it easier for connected devices to integrate and interoperate with each other," says Jason du Preez, CEO at privacy software company Privitar.
Brillo also comes hand-in-hand with Google’s new communications protocol called Weave, which is the command language that Google hopes will become a de-facto standard that all IoT devices are built to understand.
How significant is Google Brillo?
"It’s real validation that IoT is here to stay," says Nav Dhunay CEO and founder of Ambyint, which develops IoT systems. "We’ve now got a powerhouse technology company, Google, backing IoT and making it easier for organisations to build an IoT-based product/platform."
It’s surely Google’s status that is the most important aspect – what Google says, goes. "We’re extremely pleased to see what can generally be quite a disparate set of implementation standards become something more standardised," says Mike Crooks, head of Mubaloo Innovation Lab, which works on location-targeted technology.
"When it’s driven by a major player such as Google, we can be sure that issues we’ve faced with proprietary standards will be reduced," says Crooks, who compares Brillo with iBeacons. "With beacons, if Apple hadn’t produced a standard for the technology, the technology wouldn’t have taken off as it has – and Brillo has the potential to do the same for IoT standardisation as Apple did with beacons."
The IoT’s app ecosystem
With Brillo, Google is saying that it thinks the IoT needs apps, not the internet. "Brillo also made it clear that the traditional web model would not work for IoT," says Dhunay. "We’re going to be seeing a shift towards more of an app ecosystem relying on an IoT infrastructure."
Crucially, Brillo and Android apps will go hand-in-hand. "The fact Brillo is supported in the latest versions of the Google Play Services – the toolkit our Android experts use to help develop applications – means adoption in apps will be much quicker than needing to use a patchwork of other frameworks," says Crooks.
Limitations and IoT land-grab
What about Apple’s HomeKit?
Despite Brillo’s appearance, there will be no single dominant ecosystem in the smart home market. Apple beat Google to the prize by unveiling its HomeKit system last year, which like Brillo uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy, and promises close integration with Apple’s phones, tablets and Apple Watch.
However, HomeKit isn’t the only IoT component that Brillo will have to battle, or integrate with. Qualcomm and Microsoft are backing the AllSeen Alliance’s AllJoyn, while Intel, Samsung and Cisco are pushing the IoTivity platform.
What are Brillo’s limitations?
The IoT is still in a test phase, and that’s not going to finish anytime soon. However, the IoT comes with its own specific risks to privacy. "Exploits and bugs will, no doubt, be part of the show, only this time providing a window into our most private sanctuaries," warns du Preez. "Given Google’s track record with its previous smart home product Nest, which was infamous for malfunctions, and its Android operating system, these risks cannot be underestimated."
Is a Google monopoly a good idea?
There’s also the little matter of possible domination by one company which, arguably, already holds too much personal information about us. "We also cannot disregard the fact that even working perfectly, this fabric is designed to give Google and the entire app-making ecosystem an even deeper dig into our private lives," says du Preez. "Organisations need to ensure that they are ahead of evolving regulation and take this invitation into our living rooms seriously – they must enforce the most rigorous measures to ensure our data is safe from abuse or theft."
He goes on to say that strong governance, best-practice infrastructure, application security measures, and data-centric approaches to keeping sensitive data private are all imperative to any company looking to enter the IoT fray.
The IoT land-grab
The theory goes that the IoT will only grow quickly if there’s a single ecosystem, but the emergence of Google Brillo is only the latest salvo in an ongoing IoT land-grab. Having one language and one OS for the IoT is tempting, and will theoretically make life easier for device manufacturers, app developers and residents of smart homes. Privacy advocates will worry about Google’s ever-expanding monopoly, but Brillo’s chance of success probably lies with how easy its devices and features are to use with a phone; these days, convenience almost always wins out.