What’s the hype with HyperCat and the Internet of Things?

Clare Hopping

Friday 29 August 2014

HyperCat is one of several projects setting out to standardise the way connected devices communicate – and it’s had its fair share of criticism. What are the challenges of trying to create a one-size-fits-all solution to connecting devices to the Internet of Things, and why could the government funded HyperCat be the wrong option?

Like many Internet of Things (IoT) campaigns, HyperCat aims to set a standard for interoperability, meaning developers won’t have to change the way they create software for devices depending on who manufactured them.

The project comprises 40 technology companies, from small startups to massive multinationals, all working together to make sure the devices that connect a home or office work more effectively. It has received £6.4m of government funding through the UK’s Technology Strategy Board, making it a hot topic in the IT world and showing the government’s dedication to setting a standard to help grow the IoT.

However, HyperCat is just one of many projects that are setting out to standardise the communication between IoT devices. The AllSeen Alliance was established by companies including Haier, LG Electronics, Panasonic and Qualcomm to enable interoperability between IoT devices, while the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), set up in March this year, was set up by companies including Cisco, General Electric, IBM and Intel to find standards to connect objects, sensors and computing systems.

HyperCat is attracting criticism

Although the HyperCat initiative sounds promising because it involves both big and small companies, it has already received criticism from those who don’t think it will work because two of the biggest technology companies in the world – Google and Apple – are not involved. Without their support and leadership in the IoT, it’s surely on course for failure.

One of the project’s critics, Professor Ian Brown from the Oxford Internet Institute, has said that not having the support of all technology companies is something that needs to be addressed. However, it’s not necessarily easy to convince them to change their way of thinking.

“If a company is leading in a market, why on earth would they do anything that would make it easier for their competitors to enter?” he has said.

“Sometimes there will be circumstances that will persuade them that if they open up in this way they can grow the overall market larger. But the hard economics is that they may be reluctant to do that.”

Apple and Google’s place in the Internet of Things

However, Keith Reed, head of sales and COO of 1248, one of the smaller companies involved in HyperCat, disagrees. He says Apple and Google are working on a separate string of the IoT challenge: how devices are able to talk to each other. HyperCat, however, takes on apps looking for data and sets about working out how to find that data, from the top down.

“The fact is, a lot of the hype is about the domestic or consumer market and the enormous heavyweights like Google and Apple are making their presence known,” says Reed.  “However, HyperCat is not trying to own the B2C space – it’s for all industrial and commercial uses.”

Security first

Other concerns from critics are the security issues around HyperCat. If the initiative brings together the different elements of HyperCat, it will need to ‘read’ the devices, and this has led to security advocates worrying that data will be exposed to the outside world.

Additionally, it has the potential to allow apps to track individuals, and with all the hype surrounding the NSA and government snooping, it is an issue at the forefront of the HyperCat initiative.

The companies involved in HyperCat understand these problems too, and part of the standardisation is about working on a solution to ensure the communications between devices stays secure – whether this is by traditional measures such as encryption or using additional security software standards.

A shifting future

HyperCat is at the very early stages of development, and even Reed accepts the group may not be able to achieve its objectives as originally stated. HyperCat has already shifted and changed at a speedy rate, and it would make sense for the project to move in a way that is unidentifiable from its original aims.

At present, to make everything work together, humans have to code everything manually. As the industry scales, so will the human input. But humans don’t scale effectively, according to Reed, so some automation standardisation is needed to take humans out of the equation.

The big challenges ahead

With companies like Google and Apple working on developing their own solutions to interoperability, other competing projects setting out to do exactly the same as HyperCat and critics saying it’s not going to work, the initiative is up against some big challenges.

Ultimately, consumers and businesses just want the technology in their home to work, without spending time setting everything up or reading instructions. Your lighting systems, heating systems and even Smart TVs should all work together in a standard way, just as your Wi-Fi network can connect any enabled device using one password.

In that respect, HyperCat is a promising project – whether it stays as it is, or adapts to follow the examples set by the big tech companies working on their own solutions. The end result, regardless, is to make the IoT a seamless way of life.

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