IoT, Cables and Trust
It’s been called “the infrastructure of the information society”. By the end of the decade it will have profoundly impacted the scope and evolution of residential, government and enterprise automation, management and communications networks. Businesses alone may add as many as 9 billion connected nodes or more. The Internet of Things is a storm of change existing at a granular level, generally not noticed from the perspective of day-to-day experience, where simple devices supporting simple tasks can generate a relentless gale of data. One of the key challenges of the Internet of Things is the “basket of remotes” problem.
Jean-Louis Gassée described the basket of remotes problem like this; there are too many devices which don’t provide sufficient self-description or two-way communication capability when deployed, and this will result in countless applications that will need to interface with countless more devices that don’t necessarily share the protocols for speaking to one another. It’s like having a basket of remotes to control each of the components in your home theater system instead of having a single, universal remote that consolidates all the system functionality. This is typically because each device uses its own remote “language” or can’t advertise its condition to other devices which have the potential for control. Insufficient communication equals unpredictable performance. For IoT to attain its expected mass, a whole lot of devices are going to need to find a way to communicate with a whole lot of other devices on their own, with no human intervention. Think “plug and play” for the background set. And this thinking ultimately brings us to cables.
We’ve written a lot in this blog about USB Type-C. You’ll find articles here, here and here, just for starters. Not so long ago, an article surfaced about certain dodgy cables destroying an engineer’s laptop and test equipment. The astonishing flexibility of the USB-C connection is an early manifestation of the emerging IoT experience. As we work to connect more things, to streamline more processes and to pack more power into smaller, lighter and more efficient packages, we are also going to find that we must carefully invest in technology that is optimized for self-description and two-way communication as an element of its environment. The manufacturer of the USB Type-C cable that damaged the Google engineer’s gear in the above article clearly hadn’t invested in understanding the need for intelligence in something as unprepossessing as a USB patchcord.
USB Type-C is just the first of what will certainly be an evolution in many connectivity systems. The traditional USB connection on your laptop or tablet has a straightforward job – transport data across a differential pair of conductors, and deliver 5 volts DC up to a maximum of 10 watts across another pair. Not so with USB-C. The new format’s 24 pins can support a dizzying array of power profiles that span a range ten times greater than past specs allowed. Additionally, the auto-configuration capability of USB-C allows the connection of audio, video, control and power elements in a less hierarchical, more intuitive order than in the past. You’ll be able to connect your smartphone to your tablet, or your tablet to a colleague’s tablet to share a battery charge or transfer content. To make this possible, USB-C uses a complex system of e-marker chips and billboard chips embedded in the cables and connectors themselves. These “smart” cables and docks are little islands of information, far removed from the simple, stupid pipes of 20th Century connectivity.
In the near past, good connectivity was simply a matter of using quality construction techniques and the proper tools to attach the desired form factor interface to either end of a copper, fiber or hybrid cable. Making a quality, useful VGA interconnect didn’t take a lot of research or demand a big investment in engineering skills. The game changed very little when analog sunset gave way to a new, digital sunrise. For certain, HDMI cables are more complex and more challenging to build than an HD-15 terminated analog VGA patch cable, but this is a matter of scale and not substance. Pin 1 on one end connects to Pin 1 on the other end. The next generation of connectivity solutions, however, will demand a wholly different competency in system design and integration on the part of a manufacturer. It won’t take too many fried $1200 Chromebooks to ruin a reputation.
As the Internet of Things goes mainstream, suppliers of solutions and devices will have to focus on applications and standards as much as, or even more than, they do on processes and efficiencies. The best producers will ensure they have a strong presence at the leading edge of the storm, all the better to understand how the landscape will be changed by the coming winds of technological change. Instead of asking a simple “How long do you want this connection?”, they will instead ask “What do you want it to do?” Instead of listing how many things they can connect, the best manufacturers will be sharing their vision of new and emerging A/V apps and services.
The communications industry, and the A/V community in particular, will be driven to look at cabling and connectivity as a fully-fledged component of the system’s design. “Cable trust” will mean a lot more than simply avoiding counterfeit cables that fail to meet fire and flame resistant standards or that don’t deliver the performance indicated by their published specs. In the TechRadar™: Internet Of Things, Q1 2016 report, Forrester states that IoT “standards are nascent, as vendors are only a couple of years into the process of creating general-purpose interoperability standards.” As the tempest called the Internet of Things scours the landscape, and as a new normal where patch cords and cables have to communicate with the devices to which they’re attached begins to take shape and grow, you’ll need to know that your connectivity solutions are coming from a vendor who’s committed, involved and excited about making your installations work to the very limits of their design.