Why Connectivity Shouldn’t Mean Complexity

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Some of the world’s best-known electronics and appliance companies have stumbled in bringing out connected versions of their products. The reason? They were over-designing the communications.

We’re surrounded by so many connected computers, especially notebooks and smartphones that many engineers and product designers think that the design problems for connected devices have all been solved. Want to bring a thermostat, or a washing machine, or a garage door opener online, so that it can be controlled remotely by a mobile phone? No problem. Just do what the computer guys do.

That assumption is a common one, but not only is it incorrect, it may be the single biggest obstacle preventing the growth in the population of convenient connected devices in homes and offices.

Computers — a category that for us includes smartphones and tablets — have unique communications characteristics. Chief among them is that they must transfer enormous amounts of data, in real time, with a very high degree of accuracy. Think of the sheer number of bits flying back and forth as you chat on your iPhone or Android, or as you lean back and watch a streaming Netflix movie on your notebook. (An activity, by the way, that now makes up roughly a quarter of all Internet traffic!)

The behind-the-scenes protocols used for these communications are a smorgasbord of acronyms: TCP/IP, HTTP, RTSP, SSL, XML, SOAP, NTP, XMPP and more. All of them were architected to handle the sorts of robust messaging involved with computing. And because most engineers are familiar with them from their everyday exposure to computers and the Web, they are the same protocols and approaches that engineers first turn to when they start thinking about connected devices.

But that’s a big mistake, and it’s the reason a number of high-profile corporate efforts at connected devices have quietly stalled.

The protocols you use to send video from a server to a computer are not the same want you want to use to bring connectivity to, say, a washer or an air conditioning system. What might work with computers will be too expensive, too complex and too energy-inefficient for a consumer device; it would be like using a big rig truck to deliver pizza.

Yet engineers often choose these solutions because of their familiarity. Their attitude is along the lines of, “I have TCP/IP, HTTP and SSL in my den; why shouldn’t I have it in my kitchen, laundry and garage, too?” Usually, they give up even before the project is finished, overwhelmed by cost and complexity.

By contrast, a less-is-more design approach is at the heart of Arrayent’s approach to connected devices. That’s because, for one thing, data transfers in the world of connected devices tend to come in frequent short bursts, rather than long, continued streams. Everything we do, starting with our choice of simpler UDP protocols instead of those with origins in the TCP/IP world, has been chosen with appliances and devices, rather than full-blown computers, in mind.

Our simpler-the-better approach to communications affects a lot more than the communications protocols we’ve adopted. We also have built our systems to take as much of the complexity as possible out of the design process. We’ve hidden it away “in the cloud,” in our servers. Your engineers aren’t experts in digital communications. With Arrayent, they can work on the consumer experiences that they know best, and leave the technical heavy lifting to us. We may not know a lot about thermostats, garage door openers or washing machines, but when it comes to simple and effective communications, no one is better.