The Internet of Things offers almost unprecedented benefits. From car engine parts to factory floors, the ability to monitor, measure and control a vast array of equipment on a granular basis opens up new vistas for organizations.
But it is a challenging world, and developers are among those most squarely on the spot. Internet of Things (IoT) applications are aimed at doing things that haven't been done before. They touch many worlds and are unlike anything many developers have ever seen, according to Mobeen Khan, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s assistant vice president for IoT solutions.
Earlier this month, AT&T released an IoT Starter Kit targeted at IoT developers. Several versions of the kit give developers an AT&T IoT device SIM, developer plans, tools, RESTful APIs and more. Telco Transformation spoke with Khan about IoT's challenge to developers and how the starter kit can help. (It's worth noting that Verizon recently announced an app store for developers: See Verizon's IoT Marketplace: One-Stop Shop for DevOps.)
Telco Transformation: A couple of contextual questions before addressing AT&T's IoT Starter Kit directly. What is unique about building IoT applications from a developer's viewpoint?
Mobeen Khan: The building of end-to-end IoT solutions is still much more complicated than building general purpose mobility applications. If you and I wanted to build an application for my smartphone or tablet we’d know exactly which operating system is being used -- such as iOS, Android or Windows -- and we'd know exactly where to go to get the software development kit. We'd download [the SDK] build the app and the UI design and publish on an app store and people would start to download.
There is nothing like that in the IoT world. Typically, a developer has to stitch multiple pieces together. He or she needs to get a device. The device may have a custom operating system, and because it is an IoT device typically, it doesn't have a front-end UI component. It may have different communications protocols. Then you need to integrate in a connectivity piece and put service management around it to get the data off, and eventually build in rules and showcase it on some UI. So there is a whole string of things that are uniquely put together in order to build an IoT application.
TT: Why is a carrier in good position to help developers create IoT applications?
MK: You need an organization that understands how to build solutions and deploy and manage customer solutions at very large scale. Remember, it starts off as 100 devices in the field for proof of concept, but pretty soon there are millions and millions. So scale is important.
TT: Okay. Now please describe AT&T's IoT Starter Kit.
MK: It starts with having the ability to stitch many of these components together. The Starter Kit allows you to do that easily. It has a device with multiple sensors so as you are building the first application you can play around with [how they function]. It comes bundled with the hardware and the connectivity pieces. The hardware is enabled in our platforms. So you don't have to worry about doing any custom programming on the hardware itself. It's more of a plug-and-play environment. It connects to various cloud platforms.
We made companion announcements with Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) the same week about how the data flows from the Starter Kit to, for example, to the Azure cloud. Similarly, with IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) we integrate the platform with Bluemix and the Watson analytics platform.
TT: We hear a lot about digital ecosystems. How does the starter kit help build a digital ecosystem?
MK: I would say just "ecosystem" not "digital ecosystem." There are multiple ecosystems that must be connected. One of the most important for IoT is the device ecosystem because there are so many different types of devices. For example, you may use a specific device to connect assets on an oil rig, which would need to handle higher temperatures versus devices for inside a car, versus a device that plugs into your retail point of sale system. We talk to these ecosystem partners on a daily and weekly basis. We understand their road maps and advise them on what customers are saying. We also make sure these devices can talk back into our platforms.
Number two is the cloud ecosystem. If you look at the IT world -- not the IoT world -- applications and intelligence all are moving into the cloud. We have seen this for instance with Microsoft and IBM. So it is important for us to have the IoT system and the data and the applications live in those clouds because many enterprise customers ask the developers to connect IoT applications into their back end [systems].
The third area is analytics insight from data... whether it is streaming data coming in live or batch analysis stored over a period of months so it can be analyzed to gain some insight. That's another ecosystem.
TT: Will this expand the universe of developers who can write IoT applications?
MK: Developers are not trained to build IoT solutions. They know how to build IP applications, they know how to build mobility applications and are starting to learn about the IoT and the nuances of building IoT applications. We constantly, for example, run hackathons and dev labs in many parts of the country and sometimes even outside the US where we engage with these developer communities with the tools and starter kits.
The subtext is that at a high level there three types of developers: There are "two guys in a garage" -- guys who are building big IoT applications and a great startup. There is the enterprise developer who typically is inside a midsize to large company that has internal IoT initiatives that they are going to deliver. The third type are system integrators and ISVs (independent software developers) whose companies work on behalf of these enterprises to build solutions. We are bringing them [all] up to speed on the latest and greatest in the IoT ecosystem world. We are targeting those three types of developers with the starter kit and our platforms.
TT: In the broader picture, where is AT&T in evolution of the IoT?
MK: In the broader context, AT&T has been working in this space -- which is connected devices, M2M or IoT -- for over ten years. This is nothing new to us. We have 28 million IoT devices on our network. We continue to build on that base of customers. We are investing in multiple layers of the solutions stack.
Today, we talked about platforms. We also are investing heavily in the connectivity layer -- we made the announcement of deploying and launching LTE Cat M solutions for IoT. This is a network enhancement to support IoT devices for very long battery life -- a ten-year battery life -- much deeper in-building penetration and lower cost.
— Carl Weinschenk, Contributing Writer, Telco Transformation