Following are excerpts from an in-depth review of core IoT technologies and the companies that are positioning themselves to lead in each area (the full article in Barron's is exceptionally valuable). While some of the products seem to border on the trivial - how many tasks can your wristband do that are actually useful? - consider them prototypes or experiments that will lead to more powerful and more useful products in the near future.
For now, it's helpful to think about the functional requirements for connected things, and then take a look at the companies trying to solve those challenges. For example: if we're going to put chips in every lightbulb, the cost of those chips is going to have to be no more than a few cents. If all kinds of devices are going to 'want' to talk to each other, will they actually speak the same language? And if IoT sensors are going to be always on, (a) they'll need batteries with very long lives, and (b) they will have to be smart enough to save more energy than they use.
"In a cluttered office in downtown San Francisco, a start-up called Switch Embassy is advancing what's known in technology circles as the Internet of Things. The cramped space overflows with swatches of fabric embroidered with conductive wiring, a veritable woven circuit board that can be stitched into shirts, handbags, and gloves, and can transmit signals from a smartphone or even a server across the world.
"Prototypes line the walls: a stylish leather clutch that can light up with a soft pulsing grid of glowing LEDs to let a wearer know she's got a text message; a black cocktail dress that glows green in a periodic rhythm matching the wearer's heart rate detected by sensors inside the dress.
"The inventions are a revelation: Someday, technology will be everywhere in our lives, including the clothes on our back. But for now, the Internet of Things, or the 'IoT,' as the tech world refers to it, is terribly prosaic. It has sprouted legions of supposedly smart watches and fitness bands from the likes of Samsung Electronics, Jawbone, Qualcomm, and Pebble. The results so far, however, have been underwhelming.
"The stakes are high, nonetheless.
"For Apple and Google, smart connected devices will be the next front in the battle of their respective 'ecosystems' -- collections of computing devices and software -- for supremacy.
"For established computing-chip vendors Intel and Qualcomm, the IoT offers new realms to conquer, but also challenges the economics that have defined their businesses.
"For other chip vendors, such as sensor makers InvenSense and OmniVision Technologies, the IoT offers a million new uses for the cutting-edge technology they have developed.
"For the makers of very simple computer chips, such as Texas Instruments and Atmel, and for one-time mobile champs such as navigation pioneer Garmin, the Internet of Things may offer something of a comeback after they lost the battle for smartphones and tablets.
"And for a host of others -- smartwatch maker Pebble, fitness-band makers Fitbit and Jawbone -- the IoT could make or break their business models.
"To succeed, all of this connected stuff has to get much, much smarter, and it has to get much cheaper. Right now, wearables just don't have enough functionality to serve many people who have already paid for a smartphone packed with information....
"[E]veryone from Silicon Valley to Asia is waiting to see what Apple will unveil this fall, when it's expected to introduce its first wearable device. In June, Apple demonstrated software that will allow a user to begin a task on one device, such as a Mac computer or iPad, and continue it on another, seamlessly. That could set the stage for making its future wearables offerings communicate easily with iPhones or iPad.
"Cramming tons of sensors into a small device with a tiny battery creates an obvious problem: It's not much good if the device itself dies halfway through a jog.
"That's where companies such as QuickLogic of Sunnyvale, Calif., come in.... The company's main effort is aimed at what's called a sensor hub, which listens to the motion sensor to analyze how many steps you've taken. It runs cooler than the main chip, the microprocessor -- it consumes less than one-tenth of the power of its more powerful sibling -- so it can listen constantly.
"As CEO Andrew Pease points out, the hub inside a wearable will have to allow for a week's worth or more of battery life, unlike smartphone chips that are expected to be charged up every night.
"Competitor NXP Semiconductors has already made a name for itself putting chips in unusual places. For example, NXP ships over six million chips a year into the market for hearing aids, as the dominant supplier to the top vendors, Cochlear and Phonak. NXP also provides chips that go into the vast majority of new passports issued by countries around the world. CEO Rick Clemmer believes expertise in security will be key in IoT.
"NXP is already the supplier of sensor hub technology inside the iPhone 5S, and the company says it's working with 'one of of the largest wearable technology companies in the world on inserting the sensor hub into their designs.' Clemmer adds that 'in order to make it easy for people to use, they have to feel comfortable that their personal data on those devices is protected.'
"After all the sensors, smarter software, and efficient sensor hubs have been added, none of this will matter much if the devices still cost a bundle. Today's wearable fitness bands and watches range in price from less than $100 to $400. Google's Glass wearable eyewear sells for a whopping $1,500. These are not mainstream prices. To sell at Target, without a subsidy like a phone, they may need to run $100 or less.
"That puts makers of the wearable's brains -- microprocessor vendors such as Intel and Qualcomm -- in the cross-hairs, given that a microprocessor can be among the costliest parts, just after the display, in these devices. 'You've got to get the cost down if the volume is going to take off' in wearables, says chip researcher Linley Gwennap, the eponymous director of the Linley Group. 'What you're talking about are not smartphone chip prices of $20 or $30, but an order of magnitude less, say, $2 or $3.'...
"Then again, Mike Bell, head of new devices for Intel, thinks the focus on price is misguided. Bell, who knows about fashion and technology, having helped to develop the iPhone when he was at Apple, argues consumers will pay up for style -- that they will even pay a premium for it.
"Intel, which bought Basis Science, a start-up in fitness watches, in March, now has a design studio in downtown San Francisco staffed by experts from the fashion and design worlds to tinker with ideas until something worthwhile emerges.
"'If it looks fashionable, if it is something that you wouldn't be embarrassed to wear, there is room for another device' in people's budgets, Bell says. 'There are price points in fashion stores that are way higher than what we charge in the technology world.'"