A New Niche for Mobile Developers

If you’re bored creating routine mobile apps and want to massively diversify your skill set, consider exploring the Internet of Things, or IoT.

SmartThings Screen ShotThe Internet of Things is a parallel world of machine-to machine traffic that replaces human data input, such as touching keys on a smartphone, with sensors. The sensors take data from the physical world and connect it to the Internet via microcontrollers, small-footprint computers, radios, modems and routers. The data can then be stored on servers, acted on by other computers or perhaps viewed via a mobile app.

While mobile apps will be around for a long time, they represent just one part of the ramp-up of sensor-based technologies. The technology is already being used in cars, buildings and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, the formal name for drones. Learning how the sensors work with the connectivity and server/database back ends, along with their companion mobile apps, is sure to result in a valuable skill set as business models catch up to the possibilities.

IoT projects have been in heavy development for the past three or four years. Developers are increasingly marrying different flavors of microcontrollers to different modes of connectivity, from plain-old wired Ethernet modules to cellular modems and wide selection of radio modules. These might include WiFi, Xbee, RFM12Bs and even tiny-little RF transmitter/receiver pairs. They connect those sensors to the Internet and, as I said, allow remote applications to productively use the resultant data.

Hurdles Mean Opportunities

There are still plenty of real problems with all this IoT stuff, though. However, problems create the need for solutions, and people build businesses creating ways to address them.

For one thing, today’s individual sensors don’t scale very well. Also, the necessary infrastructure is still immature, not very well exploited, or non-standard.

Then there’s cost: From a production standpoint, even sensors that talk to a little home router are still prohibitively expensive. Setting up a sensor network with its associated support electronics, wireless connectivity, routers and system management tools is downright complicated, even for a small application.

Data storage is another issue. You might need a whole infrastructure of servers to track and use huge amounts of sensor data. But here there are some alternatives. If you don’t want to store all that data yourself, companies like UK-based Cosm can take care of it for you.

Practical Applications

A real-world example of how the IoT works might be an infrared sensor that detects the number of bats in a bat house, or a couple of thermal sensors that monitor temperature inside and outside the bats’ hideaway. You could display the data over time  to determine when the bats are present how temperature affects their behavior. (The bat house example actually exists. Take a look at it here.)

The application isn’t only about information-gathering. Because data can flow in both directions, you could send a command up to the platform, which then sends passes it on to the IoT device to activate a relay that turns on a fan if the bat house gets too hot.

Cosm, by the way, has several Android data-viewer apps in Google Play.

Another example is from SmartThings, a Minneapolis maker of household sensors controlled by smartphones. Its hub controls lights, heating and air conditioning, sprinklers, doors and appliances, among other tasks.

The IoT’s infrastructure is slowly, steadily being built from scratch and beginning to attract capital. A whole new industry is taking shape using new hardware, software and the Internet’s capabilities.

For mobile developers, this means new opportunities to create apps that make data productive. It’s an important area for you to keep an eye on.

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