Amazon Echo: great tech present for your tech-averse parents!

Never let it be said that I get serious about my Christmas shopping until about this date!

This year, my major suggestion is about a product that it took me a full year to buy after my mother-in-law of a certain age sent last Christmas’s check: never let it be said that I rush into purchases of any kind (I should explain that I’m like the Beacon Hill Brahmin lady who explained to a New York counterpart asking where she bought her hat: “We don’t buy hats. We have hats.” Similarly, I try to avoid buying absolutely anything: I just have what I absolutely need. A strange and complex bird, I am …).

The item in question? An Amazon Echo, which, characteristically, I bought refurbished for $50 off!

Amazon Echo

Amazon Echo

That leads me to a last-minute suggestion for an unlikely use of said Echo: introducing your tech-averse parent to the benefits of smart home and Quantified Self technology (AKA my “SmartAging” paradigm to keep seniors healthy and in their own homes instead of an institution).

 As I wrote a year ago, I think the neatest thing about the Echo in that regard (and, to a lesser extent, other voice-controlled IoT devices, although they’re handicapped because they just don’t have Alexa’s quick response time and already huge and constantly growing list of “skills) is that you don’t need to know any technology to use it: you just say “Alexa:….” and she does it!

While I knew the Echo had gone far beyond its original use to stream music, I had no idea until I bought it how robust and rapidly-growing it’s “skills” have become, and that it’s really a full-fledged smart home hub (why buy a dedicated hub that just sits there and doesn’t provide any of the Echo’s other benefits? Got me..).  It’s hard to keep up, but a recent Turbo Future article, “Amazon Echo: 15 Best New Features,” gives a pretty good overview, and it seems to me that most of them involve various services that can make it a lot easier, and definitely more enjoyable, for aging parents to continue to live in and manage their homes (although some judicious Christmas morning set-up by adult children may be in order for those seniors who avoid technology like the plague), because all you have to do is talk and listen! They’ll appreciate Alexa even more if their hands are full, which is often the case in the kitchen.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • shopping lists: my wife doesn’t share my love of gadgetry, but we both love this simple service.  Say “Alexa, add flour to my shopping list,” and it’s instantly on the Alexa app on your phone, to pull out at the supermarket. As someone who dutifully makes shopping lists and then always forgets them, that’s worth the service alone.  I won’t buy my household staples from Amazon because, despite the savings, I don’t like the ecological impact that specialized service causes, but if that’s not an issue for you, you can order products directly from Amazon using Alexa.
  • ordering services: you can hail an Uber or order a Domino’s Pizza. For a senior who doesn’t have a car, that can be great!
  • music: obviously the prime market for Amazon’s and other streaming music services such as Pandora is millennials, but, guess what, you can even get Guy Lombardo (the soundtrack of my earliest years because of my parents’ 78’s) simply by asking Alexa.  The ultimate time machine!
  • books: if you parent has vision problems, audible books may be a boon, and since Amazon now owns Audible, this is also possible.
  • news: I’ve been trying to wean myself from the news since Something Bad Happened Last Month, but I’m still drawn like a moth to the flame, so I can get NPR instantly. A growing variety of other sources are also available.
  • smart home: I just installed two Sensi thermostats as I get deeper into smart home technology on the home front. Even though they have a great app that lets me adjust the temp when I’m away from home, it’s neat to just say “Alexa, turn down the heat two degrees” and have her do the work, not me! Next up? Adding my WeMo lights.
  • cooking: even though you can now get Echo’s little brothers (Dot and Tap) for use elsewhere in the home — or even outdoors — most Echos are found in the kitchen, and nothing is worse than flour-covered hands on a cookbook.  Now you can even ask Alexa for a great recipe for a certain dish, use it to make your shopping list, and follow the steps for making the dish, all just by asking her. Neato.
  • calendar: they may not be working anymore, but seniors have got a lot of appointments — the doctor, or my wife’s 95-year old aunt’s tango lessons (I kid you not!), so if you link your Google Calendar, Alexa will make sure you’re not late.

Equally important (and I suspect this will become more of a feature in the near future) the Echo can even help you stay on top of the other part of my SmartAging vision: improving your health, because you can access your Fitbit data.  There’s already a skill to help parents with kiddies’ ailments, from our Children’s Hospital, so why not one for geriatrics as well??

That’s just for now, and independent developers are adding new “skills” for Alexa at a dizzying pace.  So, if you still don’t have a present for Grannie? Get her an Echo, and since it’s from Amazon, she’ll still get it by the 25th!

 

Blockchain might be answer to IoT security woes

Could blockchain be the answer to IoT security woes?

I hope so, because I’d like to get away from my recent fixation on IoT security breaches and their consequences,  especially the Mirai botnet attack that brought a large of the Internet to its knees this Fall and the even scarier (because it involved Philips, a company that takes security seriously) white-hat hackers attack on Hue bulbs.  As I’ve written, unless IoT security is improved, the public and corporations will lose faith in it and the IoT will never develop to its full potential.

Now, there’s growing discussion that blockchain (which makes bitcoin possible), might offer a good IoT security platform.

Ironically — for something dealing with security — blockchain’s value in IoT may be because the data is shared and no one person owns it or can alter it unilaterally (BTW, this is one more example of my IoT “Essential Truth” that with the IoT data should be shared, rather than hoarded as in the past.

If you’re not familiar with blockchain, here’s an IBM video, using an example from the highly security-conscious diamond industry, that gives a nice summary of how it works and why:

The key aspects of blockchain is that it:

  • is transparent
  • can trace all aspects of actions or transactions (critical for complex sequences of actions in an IoT process)
  • is distributed: there’s a shared form of record keeping, that everyone in the process can access.
  • requires permission — everyone has permission for every step
  • is secure: no one person — even a system administrator — can alter it without group approval.

Of these, perhaps the most important aspect for IoT security is that no one person can change the blockchain unilaterally, adding something (think malware) without the action being permanently recorded and without every participant’s permission.  To add a new transaction to the blockchain, all the members must validate it by applying an algorithm to confirm its validity.

The blockchain can also increase efficiency by reducing the need for intermediaries, and it’s a much better way to handle the massive flood of data that will be generated by the IoT.

The Chain of Things think tank and consortium is taking the lead on exploring blockchain’s application to the IoT. The group describes itself as “technologists at the nexus of IoT hardware manufacturing and alternative blockchain applications.” They’ve run several blockchain hackathons, and are working on open standards for IoT blockchains.

Contrast blockchain with the current prevailing IoT security paradigm.  As Datafloq points out, it’s based on the old client-server approach, which really doesn’t work with the IoT’s complexity and variety of connections: “Connection between devices will have to exclusively go through the internet, even if they happen to be a few feet apart.”  It doesn’t make sense to try to funnel the massive amounts of data that will result from widespread deployment of billions of IoT devices and sensor through a centralized model when a decentralized, peer-to-peer alternative would be more economical and efficient.

Datafloq concludes:

“Blockchain technology is the missing link to settle scalability, privacy, and reliability concerns in the Internet of Things. Blockchain technologies could perhaps be the silver bullet needed by the IoT industry. Blockchain technology can be used in tracking billions of connected devices, enable the processing of transactions and coordination between devices; allow for significant savings to IoT industry manufacturers. This decentralized approach would eliminate single points of failure, creating a more resilient ecosystem for devices to run on. The cryptographic algorithms used by blockchains, would make consumer data more private.”

I love it: paradoxically, sharing data makes it more secure!  Until something better comes along and/or the nature of IoT strategy challenges changes, it seems to me this should be the basis for secure IoT data transmission!

 

 

 

Libelium: flexibility a key strategy for IoT startups

I’ve been fixated recently on venerable manufacturing firms such as 169-yr. old Siemens making the IoT switch.  Time to switch focus, and look at one of my fav pure-play IoT firms, Libelium.  I think Libelium proves that smart IoT firms must, above all, remain nimble and flexible,  by three interdependent strategies:

  • avoiding picking winners among communications protocols and other standards.
  • avoiding over-specialization.
  • partnering instead of going it alone.
Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

If you aren’t familiar with Libelium, it’s a Spanish company that recently turned 10 (my, how time flies!) in a category littered with failures that had interesting concepts but didn’t survive. Bright, young, CEO Alicia Asin, one of my favorite IoT thought leaders (and do-ers!) was recently named best manager of the year in the Aragón region in Spain.  I sat down with her for a wide-ranging discussion when she recently visited the Hub of the Universe.

I’ve loved the company since its inception, particularly because it is active in so many sectors of the IoT, including logistics, industrial control, smart meters, home automation and a couple of my most favorite, agriculture (I have a weak spot for anything that combines “IoT” AND “precision”!) and smart cities.  I asked Asin why the company hadn’t picked one of those verticals as its sole focus: “it was too risky to choose one market. That’s still the same: the IoT is still so fragmented in various verticals.”

The best illustration of the company’s strategy in action is its Waspmote sensor platform, which it calls the “most complete Internet of Things platform in the market with worldwide certifications.” It can monitor up to 120 sensors to cover hundreds of IoT applications in the wide range of markets Libelium serves with this diversified strategy, ranging from the environment to “smart” parking.  The new versions of their sensors include actuators, to not simply report data, but also allow M2M control of devices such as irrigation valves, thermostats, illumination systems, motors and PLC’s. Equally important, because of the potentially high cost of having to replace the sensors, the new ones use extremely little power, so they can last        .

Equally important as the company’s refusal to limit itself to a single vertical market is its commitment to open systems and multiple communications protocols, including LoRaWAN, SIGFOX, ZigBee and 4G — a total of 16 radio technologies. It also provides both open source SDK and APIs.

Why?  As Asin told me:

 

“There is not going to be a standard. This (competiting standards and technology) is the new normal.

“I talk to some cities that want to become involved in smart cities, and they say we want to start working on this but we want to use the protocol that will be the winner.

“No one knows what will be the winner.

“We use things that are resilient. We install all the agents — if you aren’t happy with one, you just open the interface and change it. You don’t have to uninstall anything. What if one of these companies increases their prices to heaven, or you are not happy with the coverage, or the company disappears? We allow you to have all your options open.

“The problem is that this (not picking a standard) is a new message, and people don’t like to listen.  This is how we interpret the future.”

Libelium makes 110 different plug and play sensors (or as they call them, “Plug and Sense,” to detect a wide range of data from sources including gases, events, parking, energy use, agriculture, and water.  They claim the lowest power consumption in the industry, leading to longer life and lower maintenance and operating costs.

Finally, the company doesn’t try to do everything itself: Libelium has a large and growing partner network (or ecosystem, as it calls it — music to the ears of someone who believes in looking to nature for profitable business inspiration). Carrying the collaboration theme even farther, they’ve created an “IoT Marketplace,” where pre-assembled device combinations from Libelium and partners can be purchased to meet the specific needs of niches such as e-health,  vineyards, water quality, smart factories, and smart parking.  As the company says, “the lack of integrated solutions from hardware to application level is a barrier for fast adoption,” and the kits take away that barrier.

I can’t stress it enough: for IoT startups that aren’t totally focused on a single niche (a high-stakes strategy), Libelium offers a great model because of its flexibility, agnostic view of standards, diversification among a variety of niches, and eagerness to collaborate with other vendors.


BTW: Asin is particularly proud of the company’s newest offering, My Signals,which debuted in October and has already won several awards.  She told me that they hope the device will allow delivering Tier 1 medical care to billions of underserved people worldwide who live in rural areas with little access to hospitals.  It combines 15 different sensors measuring the most important body parameters that would ordinarily be measured in a hospital, including ECG, glucose, airflow, pulse, oxygen in

It combines 15 different sensors measuring the most important body parameters that would ordinarily be measured in a hospital, including ECG, glucose, airflow, pulse, blood oxygen, and blood pressure. The data is encrypted and sent to the Libelium Cloud in real-time to be visualized on the user’s private account.

It fits in a small suitcase and costs less than 1/100th the amount of a traditional Emergency Observation Unit.

The kit was created to make it possible for m-health developers to create prototypes cheaply and quickly.