It looks like one of the dumbest and most pointless websites in all of cyberspace. It hasn’t been updated in 12 years and, when it was active, its sole purpose was ensuring that one single Coca-cola machine in Pennsylvania was kept filled with beverages.
But in fact the CMU SCS Coke Machine website is one of the most crucial documents in the world. Because this apparently worthless jumble of pages, with their garish red background and Compuserve-era graphics, stand as testament to one of the most crucial inventions our planet has ever seen.
The site was, until 2006, run by a team from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. Back in 1982 a bunch of their predecessors wired the school’s coke machine up to the embryonic internet, primarily so they could check the machine was stocked with coke without ever leaving their desks. The Coke Machine website was created to record the history of this innovation and, right up until the last user logged off in 2006, it was still being used to organise a rota for stocking the machine.
Today that rusting beverage dispenser stands as a founding father of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the concept of a global network of inter-connected appliances, sharing data across cyberspace. Following the example of those lazy Carnegie Mellon geniuses 35 years ago, innovators everywhere are creating devices that can talk to one another, from lamps which monitor your sleep to flower pots that water themselves (as we profiled on Mobile Jazz in February).
The IoT industry is growing at a furious pace – indeed an article in Forbes last year predicted the market would nearly treble in size to $457bn between 2016 and 2020. However the open-source nature of the industry, coupled with a lack of central programming standards, has spawned a mish-mash of different Operating Systems. IoT products are babbling away in a babel of different dialects, making it difficult for them to communicate, and they’re creating chasmic security gaps for hackers to exploit.
Now Google is attempting to address these issues by rolling out version 1.0 of its own operating system (OS) for IoT devices. The platform, unveiled on the eve of Google’s I/O developer festival, is called Android Things and it’s an extension of existing form factors such as Android TV and Android Automotive, designed to standardise the IoT universe and ensure all those chatty little gadgets are talking the same language.
If you’ve worked with any of the Android OS variants before, you’ll see plenty of familiar features, although this new version is stripped-back for IoT devices, the majority of which do little more than share basic data such as temperature and moisture, and have no need for the ‘intelligent’ functions of smartphones and tablets.
Simple and Stripped-Back
Android Things isn’t actually that new. It was announced at Google I/O 2015 under the name of Brillo, but it’s taken three years and a series of developer previews to roll out a steady platform, one which adapts traditional Android functionality to the particular challenges of building apps for inter-connected devices.
The product, which is open to all developers, is mainly aimed at low-power devices, with limited processing and storage workloads, and Google has strived to ensure its latest roll-out is as simple as possible. The company boasts that Android Things “does the heavy lifting” and enables you, the developer, to channel all your creative energies into sculpting the perfect app.
Google has released this helpful video to explain how Android Things works, but if you’ve built Android apps before, there shouldn’t be too many surprises. You can use the same rich software development kit, or SDK, used in building Android smartphone apps, and the programming environment (Android Studio) and language (Kotlin) are both fairly standard.
When you want to add features to your app, you’ll find a variant of Google Play Services optimised for IoT, along with the same UI toolkit and Connectivity APIs you’ve used countless times in the past, although new APIs are available via the support library. Apps can also be easily integrated with Google services such as FireBase, TensorPro and the Google Cloud Platform.
Android Things is designed to be fast. There’s no need for a launcher or browser so it boots directly into the apps, which will help you reduce boot time and cut down your memory footprint. The platform is also designed to be secure, providing a robust defence against those nefarious bugs which have infested Android smartphones in the past.
How has Google tightened up its security, you might ask? Well, it’s simple; the security update process has been taken entirely out of your hands. Every single product built with Android Things will receive three years of automatic system updates from Google over the air (OTA) for free. All you’ll need to do is push them out via the Android Things Console. After years of open-source development, with all its attendant weaknesses, this new approach should at least make the hackers work a little bit harder.
There is a downside, of course. Google’s attempt to control as much of the update process as possible means Android Things users don’t have much room for manoeuvre. If you fancy updating the OS itself, forget about it; Google won’t let you. On the whole, though, we think the simplicity of Android Things, and Google’s control-freakery, has far more positives than negatives.
Google clearly hopes that Android Things will become the go-to standard for IoT app developers. It has accompanied the OS with Weave, a communication protocol built by its Nest Labs division. Weave will essentially provide a common pathway for IoT devices to talk to one another, without the need for Wi-Fi – a vital advantage for many of the smaller apps being built using Android Things.
Google is also pushing developers to a new community page which showcases a number of potentially game-changing apps built using Android Things. And it has to be said, some of those apps are pretty cool. If you’re partial to a bit of geeking out, check out the community page and see the full range of products for yourself. If you haven’t got time, here are three of our favourites:
The FRILLER Explorer Robot: This 3D-printed futurist’s fantasy uses sensors to change the size of its wheels in response to the terrain, enabling it to overcome obstacles and probe tiny spaces. It runs off WiFi and the developers hope to one day make it fully autonomous.
SMART glasses for the blind: From a distance these shades look just like your regular Ray Bans or Oakleys, but there’s no glass in them. The frame is in fact a façade, designed purely to hold a camera which takes images for the blind person wearing the device. The images are analysed using tensor flow and described to the wearer using speakers or headphones – providing an audio commentary and a potential early warning system.
BrewCentral: It’s never been more fashionable to make your own ale, and BrewCentral is designed to soup up the home-brew kits which have hitherto anchored the DIY-booze industry. Designed as an add-on to a traditional home brewing rig, BrewCentral manages temperature, volume and flow rates to ensure the whole process runs smoothly, making it easier to create a home brew which doesn’t taste like paint-stripper.
Now that Google is on the scene, the IoT market is likely to explode. The industry now has one clear, obvious development platform, complete with a standard programming language and one of the world’s biggest companies underpinning it all.
But just how much will IoT transform our lives? Well given the sheer pace of innovation, it’s hard to make any concrete predictions. But here are five things which we reckon will definitely happen:
- Lawyers will get rich (well, richer). With the fall-out from GDPR and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, data privacy is right on the crest of the zeitgeist. Expect a raft of lawsuits as IoT-enabled devices spark privacy actions from people terrified that Big Brother is peeping over their shoulder. The IoT manufacturers aren’t the only ones who could get rich from this technology; the lawyers will be circling as well.
- There’ll be fewer traffic jams. As well as personal appliances, IoT technology will also be used by municipal authorities that wish to implement ‘smart’ technologies. A key focus area at present is the ‘smart motorway’, with planners using leading-edge technology to anticipate traffic problems and cut the amount of congestion on our roads. Expect to be thanking IoT for drastically slashing your commute time in the not-too-distant future (although, unfortunately, it may mean you get to work earlier).
- Pollution will be slashed. Donald Trump may not like it, but the fight against climate change is going to be taken up a notch. IoT devices will be fitted to everything from garbage cans to innovation systems, providing vital intelligence in our quest to clean up the planet and making it easier than ever to implement sustainable practices. If you’ve ever thought about investing in green technologies, now’s a good time to do so.
- People will get fitter (and vainer). As if today’s young people didn’t spend enough time in the gym, they’re likely to get even more body-conscious thanks to a generation of new fitness accessories equipped with IoT technology. The Apple Watch and the FitBit are already hugely popular, but it’s hard to shake the feeling we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible in this field. Expect a lot more six-packs, selfies and self-obsession in the years ahead.
- The Android empire will grow even more. Research by Gartner in 2016 found that nearly 90% of all smartphones sold worldwide were made by Android. That’s a colossal market share, and now Google is pushing into the IoT space as well, the Android behemoth is likely to get even more powerful. Great news for Google, and great news for companies which offer Android development services.
Mobile Jazz is at the forefront of this sector, offering both Android and specialist Android Things development. We specialise in both hardware and software and we’ve been passionate about IoT since long before it was cool. In fact we’re determined to be a thought-leader in this space; we’ve written about IoT regularly in the past and we’ll continue to do so as it reshapes our world. To find out more about our services, go to the Mobile Jazz website here.
This post was co-authored by Gareth Platt