This week's IoT news
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Stacey Knows Things
Inside Microsoft's IoT factory
by Stacey Higginbotham
The idea of using the internet of things to analyze data from industrial processes and then predicting when those processes or the machines powering them might fail has become almost a cliche in the IoT world. Once you recognize that the internet of things is fundamentally a way to provide cheap insights (cheap computing + cheap sensors + advanced machine learning = cheap insights), predictive maintenance seems like a no brainer.

But when you apply it to a 2-mile particle accelerator it seems much, much cooler. The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Stanford is using internet-connected sensors in hopes of keeping the accelerator online more often, and ensuring that when it goes offline the downtime is planned. That way visiting researchers aren't stuck with a scheduled time, experiments to run and no way of getting data. 
Microsoft's pilot with SLAC uses real-time data from the klystron cooling system (one of the klystrons is picture above) and runs it through anomaly detection algorithms. (Image courtesy of SLAC.)

So far it is sending some of its data to Microsoft's Azure Machine Learning cloud service to detect potential "tells" of a mechanical problem before it occurs. It's one of several cases where Microsoft's Azure platform is part of a businesses' effort to use the internet of things. In speaking with companies building IoT products or services, the most common cloud providers I come across by far are the two Seattle-area giants, Amazon and Microsoft. 

Amazon's AWS is by far the largest provider of raw computing and storage for companies building connected products. Even companies building IoT platforms as a service such as Ayla Networks or Electric Imp host some of their computing on AWS. But what's less clear is how often developers or companies use Amazon's IoT product that offers device management and data analytics.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Azure appears to be a strong contender unless a company wants to host it on their own servers. The Eclipse Foundation last month released a survey of 528 members that backs this up. The survey found that 44% of companies that had implemented an IoT solution used Amazon's cloud, a similar amount used their own servers, and Microsoft Azure was in third place with about a quarter of those deploying an IoT solution. Ian Skerritt, who handles marketing at the Eclipse Foundation, suggested Microsoft is in that position because it has spent a lot of time an effort publicizing IoT use cases, such as the SLAC example.

These add up to more than 100%, which shows that choosing an IoT platform isn't an all or nothing proposition limited to one provider (or even limited to an external cloud).  And when it comes to strategy going forward, Sam George, director Microsoft Azure IoT, sees Microsoft focusing on the cloud side of the house (see last week's essay) as opposed to sensors or even gateways. 

In his worldview, the more intelligence and capability that lives in the cloud, the easier it is to manage and update the devices. "Software is fast, but things are slow," he said. That's why he says Microsoft is working on concepts such as creating a device twin that lives in the cloud so a systems administrator or interested party can drill down to see what the connected item is, its software and even its physical location. 

As for the gateways that collect sensor data on site and send it off to the cloud, he's a big believer that most of the work translating between protocols and even trying to decide what data matters, will take place in the cloud. Other companies are investing in smarter gateways, but Microsoft wants the edge to be dumber. (That offers more of a chance to make money selling cloud services.)

I'm not sure this is a model that will end up prevailing for all situations, especially where bandwidth is scarce. But so far, Microsoft has plenty of customers who are buying it. 
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Belkin backs Phyn, a new water startup
The perception of what a smart home is may soon begin to shift away from a tech-heavy worldview of gadgets that you control with your phone. Instead, the emphasis is increasingly on delivering services that solve problems. And frankly, some of these problems aren't terribly sexy. But that's where several startups are working.

Phyn is the latest. It is a newly created spin out of Belkin's water sensing efforts combined with plumbing equipment expertise from Uponor. It's an example of a startup built to handle a real challenge in homes without trying to snooker consumers with a fancy story about watching their kids get home from school or your coffee pot brewing your coffee just as you wake up. Phyn wants to monitor water use in the home and detect leaks. 
Phyn's CEO Ryan Kim.
CEO: Ryan Kim
What it does: Makes a water sensor that measures a home's water use looking for leaks. 
Founded: 2016
Backing: $40 million from Belkin and Uponor
I've long been skeptical about current leak detection sensors because, in the few times my home has leaked, it has never been where I happened to place a sensor. That's why I've gravitated to companies offering whole home analysis by detecting water flows, or those analyzing humidity to see if a slow leak is occurring behind a wall. Phyn, pronounced "fin", is following this latter path.

Phyn CEO Ryan Kim says that the product is a sensor a consumer or insurance firm can install underneath the kitchen sink, or a builder can install at the main water line. If a builder installs the sensor, Phyn will also offer a shut-off valve to turn off the water if a leak is detected. 

The products are in the early stage of testing and Kim isn't sure when the official launch will be.  But the creation of Phyn represents a new way of thinking for Belkin with its WeMo line of connected home devices. Belkin showed off a line of sensors at CES in 2015 which included a leak detection sensor. When I asked if those products were still going to appear one day, Belkin CEO Chet Pipkin said, "The sense that we were getting from the market is that there is not a lot of volume demand for individual sensors."

He added that, rather than having several leak detection sensors throughout the house, it will be monitored through a central point. Pipkin said Belkin was spinning out its water sensing technology to Phyn because Belkin as a company had so many other lines of business to focus on.  Belkin owns the WeMo line of connected devices, Linksys routers, and it makes a line of adapters and computer peripherals. 

Kevin is back from Google IO this week, so we discuss the Google Home product in detail. Voice + a personal assistant is hot right now, so we also discuss recent Apple rumors that it is building its own Echo-like device and opening up Siri to developers. We then talk about Pebble’s new gear, how much power my devices are sucking and Samsung’s possible decision to use Tizen instead of Android Wear on its smart watches.
Google Home, a speaker and personal assistant that is expected later this year.

In the spirit of Father’s Day and the start of summer, I chat with Chris Klein, the CEO of connected sprinkler maker Rachio. He discusses how a municipality can use connected sprinklers to control water usage, how to talk to your vocal users and what he learned selling Rachio in a Big Box retailer. You’ll also get my first impressions of the device. Enjoy the show.

Picture This:
Now this is what I call a wearable!
Last year Google told us it had teamed up with Levi's to make a conductive cloth in something it was calling Project Jacquard. (Jacquard was the name of the first mechanical loom used to make complicated fabrics.) This year at Google IO it said that it has developed a denim jacket using the new cloth and that the jacket will be for sale in 2017. The cloth is washable, but will have a removable packet of electronics tucked into the cuff of the jacket to make it work. This is cool for clothes, but you could also imagine this sort of conductive fabric built into the arm of your favorite recliner. Or even your car's upholstery. 
The proposed jacket from Levi's that will answer your phone calls and give directions via haptic feedback.
News of the week
Intel buys Itseez: Last week ARM bought an embedded computer vision startup called Apical and this week Intel made its own computer vision purchase with Russia's Itseez. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed, but like ARM, this deal is all about buying technology that can bring computer vision at lower power costs to cars, devices and cameras. It will help with self-driving cars and areas where facial recognition is important.  (Intel)

New thinking on the smart home: This story is an excellent explanation of why smart home tech seems so stalled. It also provides an answer. It boils down to stop focusing on glitchy tech that people don't really need and focus instead on the unsexy stuff that can really make a difference. Examples include leak detection (see our startup of the week above), reducing electricity usage and saving water. The other element to this shift in thinking is a clear alignment between insurers, utilities and governments when it comes to pushing the adoption of smart home gadgets.  I'm beginning to think this is where we as consumers and as a society will get the most bang for our collective innovation buck. (Henrik Holen)

Self-driving vehicles hit a technical roadblock: People are excited about self-driving technology after a fleet of self-driving trucks drove across Europe and a startup called Otto trying its own tests of self-driving trucks in the U.S. One reason is that a fleet of trucks can save fuel by riding in a clump and drafting on one another. But as this article points out, the more self-driving vehicles riding in a convoy, the more messages they must pass, which means at some point the number of messages becomes too much to handle. So a new challenge is figuring out the maximum number of vehicles that can travel in a pack before their intercommunications become too slow. (IEEE Spectrum)

The FTC wants you to talk about your disclosures: The Federal Trade Commission is asking advertisers and connected device developers about how they are talking to consumers about data use and privacy. This can involve anything from deceptive disclosures about a vehicle's gas mileage to not properly explaining to consumers about how they are being tracked. This is an issue that could become really important to those selling connected devices, so why not attend the workshop or submit comments.  (The FTC)

A new sensor for monitoring physical health: The device described in this research sounds almost magic. It's a curved sensor that affixes to skin, and can measure both accurate heart rate and, what I believe is lactic acid, in the same product. This is apparently difficult to do.  (Nature Communications)

The most dystopian thing you may read: Speaking of monitoring physiological signs ...Want to think about some of the issues that wearables and the influx of personal data they and other new technologies can provide employers? Then this article will fuel your nightmares, whether you fear a lawsuit or an Orwellian future. It covers the legal duty an employer has to an employee if an iris scan performed for security purposes detects diabetes and if it's discriminatory to look at a sales person's FitBit data when trying to decide who gets to make an important pitch.  (Wall Street Journal)

More details on HaLow, the Wi-Fi for IoT: Remember last week's radio news? Well, Wi-Fi has a dog in this hunt as well with HaLow, a lower-power Wi-Fi that can travel better through walls because it uses the 900 MHz frequency band. For more on HaLo, which I have written about in the past, check out the latest primer. (Network World)

Google goes to Detroit: Google's quest for self-driving cars is continuing with a decision to locate an office in Detroit. This isn't only good for building self-driving cars, but a smart effort to connect with the auto makers. Since the car is the next big connected platform, it makes sense to try to understand the market. (Google)

Orange joined the LoRa Alliance: The French telecom is building a low power wireless area network using the LoRa radio standard. That network will cover 17 French cities. This isn't a surprise, but it's another vote for the use of a low power network dedicated to connected devices that don't need a lot of bandwidth. (Light Reading)

Your keys are calling: At its developer conference this week, Twilio announced a partnership with T-Mobile and one with Particle. Both partnerships are tied to putting a SIM with phone call capabilities on a connected device with a data plan consumers and developers can live with. The pricing from T-Mobile is especially nice. The Programmable Wireless program pricing starts at $2 each month for the SIM. Then data cost $0.10 per MB across a pool of low-bandwidth devices. For high bandwidth devices, like a screen in your car, data usage costs $25 for the first GB and $15 for each subsequent GB. I would avoid streaming. Twilio's program with T-Mo will be installed on the Particle Electron developer boards to make all of this as easy as ordering the board. (Particle, PCMag)

Want to understand how Viv works? Viv, a startup that launched earlier this month, still hasn't gone into great depth about how it works. But if you want to know more about it, and why it matters, then this article is worth your time. (Brian Roemmele
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