Dude: Where’s my hoverboard?


By Mark Armstrong, vice president at Progress

Apparently we’re on the cusp of Industry 4.0. For the uninitiated, this means drone delivery men, robo-chauffeurs in the form of self-driving cars and (hopefully) fridges that can knock up a decent Long Island Ice Tea.

The SmartThings Living Future report, which was created by a group of academics and futurologists, recently launched its vision of the future depicting 3D printed homes, downloadable food and underwater cities. But it’s like Marty McFly’s hoverboard, which really should have come to pass by now (those things with wheels don’t count); technology can only develop as fast as their previous incarnations allow, and they need to be built on solid foundations.

Hyperbole to reality

What we need to do is cut through the hyperbole to the reality. Everyone talks it up but where is business really happening? I’ll hold my hands up; I’ve been in the software industry for 28 years and I’m as guilty as the next man of fanning these flames, ASP in 1999 for instance. Others like XML and SOA have gone on to be successful, but they weren’t the overnight successes which the tech industry has a habit of predicting, but are about as common as a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Gartner, Forrester and others can make their market sizing predictions but when it comes to IoT and mobile I can’t help but say ‘show me the money’. How many real B2B implementations are actually driving real value? Not many.

This might make me sound like a doomsayer but I’m not; I genuinely believe in the transformative power of the industrial IoT. We just need to be realistic to stop it going the way of Marty’s hoverboard.

Innovation is a fickle thing. History is littered with well-intended mistakes and great ideas that don’t quite take off. Industry has been riddled with these mistakes: ERP integration with other core business applications, universal product codes, and electronic data interchange (EDI) are just the tip of the iceberg.

Biggest flaw

Without doubt though, the biggest flaw has been the inability to agree on common standards. Industry 4.0 is based on connectivity, without it just won’t work. The multiple standards that have been developed won’t cut it; there may as well be no standards at all. It’s like having five people in a room trying to solve a problem but everyone is speaking a different language.

While basic problems exist, the largest interoperability challenge looms. This is a lack of interoperability between devices and machines that use different protocols and have different architectures. The technology giants that were the early innovators of the web including Google, Amazon and Apple have used their power to create closed ecosystems that have afforded them, and them alone control. This has led to other OEMs and partners following suit, creating their own standards for the development of applications based on proprietary operating systems or devices.

This has given rise to a very real interoperability challenge; a lack of common standards with popular devices and systems that do not share data with each other if they are not all connected within the same ecosystem.

Industrial IoT (IIOT) relies heavily on interoperability and the ability to address the same old challenges. Tech giants, having spent so long building up these walls now have to play nicely together to agree standards, using open source frameworks to enable innovation between them and other innovators.

Beneficial cooperation

Technology giants need to find a way of cooperating that doesn’t threaten IP while also building a mutually beneficial open standard that encourages collaboration from a developer perspective. Some headway has been made by the non-profit Industrial Internet Consortium but it is not enough. These giants have the ability to decide how IIOT develops: it’s time to use that power to ensure that the IIOT will still foster innovation and collaboration.

Open technologies in an open architecture will go some way to helping businesses learn and develop systems that integrate. These include new open technology frameworks like NativeScript and React Native that help developers to develop IIoT apps that will work across systems and have the ability to share data across them all.

Businesses should encourage IIOT developers to use web languages to scale applications across any device or platform. JavaScript, a popular web language, is the only language that runs on every single platform. It is the only true “write once, run everywhere” language. Whether that’s directly on a JavaScript engine, or as an abstraction to native languages, the important part is that the language that the actual business logic is coded in stays the same.

If the tech industry carries on down the route it’s taken for so long, we’re on a hiding to nothing. Working together, through open technologies is the only thing which will stop industrial innovation stagnating. It’s going to be a matter of reap what you sow in Industry 4.0 as much as it was in Industry 1.0.

Progress is a global software company that simplifies the development, deployment and management of business applications on-premise or in the cloud, on any platform or device, to any data source, with enhanced performance, minimal IT complexity and low total cost of ownership.


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