The launch of Electric Imp Inc. by founders with have served time at Apple, Facebook, Google, Mozilla and Yahoo suggests that the Internet of Things might be about to get a boost in public profile.
This could be a double-edged sword.
On the one hand it is always exciting to see an application of electronics that we have been studying and writing about for a few years finally make it on to a bigger stage. Indeed as Facebook is about to be valued at $80 billion plus at its initial public offering it is interesting to think that the Internet of Things (IoT) could be about to get "cool" and "social."
After all, a former senior product designer at Facebook and UX expert [that's user experience if you didn't guess] is a cofounder.
On the other hand the curmudgeon in me fears the heavy-hand of the internet weighing down on operations that used to be oh so simple. "I just want to switch the freaking lights out. What do you mean my password is no good?"
There are indeed numerous companies starting to pay attention to the Internet of Things. But one other company stands out for me: Neul Ltd.
Like Electric Imp, Neul wants to host data and provide IoT services and is prepared to supply user equipment chips. Neul means cloud in the Gaelic language as I remember, so Neul has its own cool factor.
The big difference between the two companies is that Neul is focusing its attention on using a white-space radio for dedicated IoT radio channels in the in spectrum at around 400- to 800-MHz. Rather than have to build its own radio infrastructure Electric Imp has decided to piggy back off Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi has high penetration in households in developed economies; reportedly 60 percent in the United States and 70 percent in the U.K., France and Germany. Indeed 25 percent of all the world's households are said to have Wi-Fi.
The other difference – and potentially an even bigger one – is that Electric Imp has, with its socket and card system, neatly divided the cost of enabling IoT between the vendors of things and the developers of networks of things. The company has also standardized that division in a way that should reduce the cost for everyone. However, there is an argument that if IoT is going to be truly successful the nodes will become so numerous that they would overwhelm Wi-Fi bandwidth. No doubt the founders of Electric Imp would consider that a nice problem to have if they have sold billions of tiny cards at $25 to get there.
Meanwhile, Neul is also selling chipsets for inclusion in end-user equipment which then still needs expensive development and some RF sophistication to be made to work. Neul hopes that where it leads other chip companies will license and follow.
It is not necessary that one system will drive out the other. Both can co-exist not least because they are in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Electric Imp is likely to find speculative interest among consumer electronics builders and hobbyists. It lets vendors of washing machines, TVs, indoor and outdoor lighting, and so on, add a differentiating capability to their equipment at very low cost. Neul, with its higher cost of entry, may do better with institutions such as utility companies aiming to introduce smart metering and other national and big company services.
So, Electric Imp or Neul? The market will decide.
Related links and articles:
Former Apple, Google, Facebook engineers launch IoT startup
Neul launches 'white-space' smart metering in Cambridge
Neul 'White Space' Radio ICs to Sample in 2012