“What everyone refers to as the Internet of Things (IoT) is a huge group of small devices that are all proprietary, don't work very well with each other, and use software that's old as Methuselah and riddled with security holes. It's completely broken and it's a wonder that some products have been as successful as they are,” says Jerry Hildenbrand, Mobile Nation's resident nerd and editor at AndroidCentral, who has been known to refer to the IoT as the “Internet of Sh*t.”
“To fix it you need cohesiveness. There needs to be a platform flexible enough for anything and everything, but rigid enough to avoid becoming fractured and broken all over again,” he continues. “That's what Android Things could be.”
Android Things is Google’s new IoT platform, which has been created for developers who want to build connected devices. In other words it is an operating system, like Android Automotive or Android TV, but designed for IoT devices like thermostats, sensors and other connected devices that don’t necessarily need a sophisticated user interface like you’d find on a computer or smartphone. Google’s Dave Smith explains in more detail in this official ‘Introduction to Android Things’ video.
Android has become a household name, primarily due to its use as an operating system for Samsung, the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturer, along with other major brands like HTC and Motorola. These smartphone manufacturers love Android because of its openness. They can essentially customize it how they please, for different models of phone or region or whatever they feel like. Google then maintains the code with monthly updates and provides an app store, where users can download their favourite 3rd party applications.
Android Things is NOT like that. It is not open or flexible. It does not allow hardware manufacturers the freedom to customize it how they see fit. Android Things is rigid, only Google gets to say how it should be used and what its capabilities are, and that is exactly why it might succeed in bringing order to the IoT.
The IoT has so many hardware manufacturers making so many devices that any fully open, a customizable platform would be hugely problematic. Even Android, the smartphone operating system, had to reign in some openness in the early days of working with HTC, Motorola and Samsung. When each of those firms wanted to do something different with the in-built clock widget, for example, it resulted in the widget not working for any of them. “Google had to step in and reimagine what's called a compatibility agreement to force the companies making phones to work with Android apps from the Android Market (the original name of Google's Play Store),” explains Hildenbrand.
Learning from those experiences and considering the varied nature of the IoT, Google designed Android Things to provide a framework that allows them, not hardware developers, to be in charge of sending out new updates, for example. That alone ensures that whenever a new security patch for Android gets released, it will be sent to Android Things devices immediately, thereby preventing the long delays that many Android smartphone devices suffer from. These types of authoritarian strategies are exactly what might solve fragmentation issues in the sector.
“The core of Android Things is centered around three pillars: an optimized OS tuned to run well on low-powered devices, a selection of Google-approved hardware kits, and finally, a streamlined system for pushing new software and security updates to IoT devices,” explains Sam Rutherford, Senior reporter at Gizmodo.
“While it might not sound like much, that last one is a biggie, because often the little computing devices connected to your wifi are high priority targets that can be exploited by hackers to gain access to your private home network,” Rutherford said in an article entitled ‘Android Things Gets Official 1.0 Release. Wait, What the Heck Is Android Things?’
The release of Android Things 1.0 occured one day before Google’s 2018 I/O Developer Conference. The timing seems strange until you notice that Microsoft’s, IoT focused, Build Developer Conference also started one day before Google’s event, so the early announcemnt ensured that Android Things became a talking point on the first day of each event. The announcement also highlighted the release of the Android Things Starter Kit featuring a 5-inch multi-touch display, a camera module, and a wifi antenna.
Android Things is already supported on a number of System-on-Modules, including the NXP i.MX8M, Qualcomm SDA212, Qualcomm SDA624 and MediaTek MT8516, as well as the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B and NXP i.MX7D hardware platforms. During the two year Beta test period, Google says it experienced over 100,000 SDK downloads and that over 10,000 developers provided feedback.
Non-commercial users are able to freely manage up to 100 devices through the Android Things Console, but over 100 and they’ll have to sign an agreement with Google.
How screwed up the IoT may or may-not be is open for debate. Sacrificing a little bit of flexibility for a bit more rigidity may not be a bad thing for a sector with thousands of companies moving in vastly different directions.
Android Things promises to address major issues, not least cyber-security and compatibility, to bring some order to what has becomes a Wild West of IoT development. It is perhaps unsurprising that Google volunteered to be the sheriff around these parts.