December 21, 2015

Laying the Groundwork for the Internet of Things: AllSeen Alliance’s Noah Harlan

AllSeen-logoThe Linux Foundation hosts numerous Collaborative Projects -- independently funded software projects that harness the power of collaborative development in an effort to drive innovation. For these projects, the Linux Foundation provides the essential collaborative and organizational framework so that participants can focus on innovation and results.

To provide greater insight into these projects, we are talking with key contributors about what they do, what motivates them, and how they got involved. In this feature, we talk with Noah Harlan, co-founder of Two Bulls and board member of AllSeen Alliance, a cross-industry consortium that is dedicated to enabling the interoperability of devices, services, and apps that make up the Internet of Things (IoT).

The AllSeen Alliance, which was formed as a collaborative project in 2013, grew out of Qualcomm's work with a nascent technology called AllJoyn, a framework that allows devices and apps to discover and communicate with each other. Noah explains, “Qualcomm saw that a future of connected devices was going to stagnate if there wasn't interoperability between players who were traditional rivals and competitors. Consumers -- retail or commercial or industrial -- were going to be locked into single product ecosystems and the only way to solve this was through a protocol that no one party held the keys to. Furthermore, the protocol couldn't be encumbered by patents that would ultimately come to haunt participants. Lastly, the protocol needed adoption and support by major participants in the industry representing different pieces of the puzzle.”

Qualcomm open-sourced AllJoyn and contributed it to the AllSeen Alliance. Now competitors are “working jointly to define protocols that, if the protocol were owned by either party, they would never do,” states Noah. “Everyone will benefit -- consumers, developers, OEMs -- when the barriers to interoperability are reduced and competitors will compete on their products, not their protocols.”

noahharlanNoah and his long-time friend, James Kane, first became interested in developing around these emerging capabilities in 2008. The following year, they founded Two Bulls, a digital creation studio that, according to Noah, is focused on building great experiences with advanced consumer technologies. Previously, he had not really been involved in any open source projects. “Many of the open source projects I was familiar with were either already very mature or in areas that were more distant tangents to Two Bulls, and my own, areas of interest and expertise. The AllSeen Alliance is a place where it was obvious we could play a vital role in developing something for which the opportunity and demand was large and the community was still young,” Noah says.

As a member of AllSeen Alliance, Two Bulls supports the Alliance's goals and mission and uses the technology in its work. Personally, says Noah, his largest role and impact is now as an Alliance board member representing the community. He attends the Alliance’s monthly board meetings and has been actively involved in outreach to other projects, including the ULE and EnOcean Alliances. He also helps support Philip Des Autels and his team in explaining the value of AllJoyn and the mission of the Alliance.

Building Infrastructure

When describing the motivation behind his work, Noah quotes the saying that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it. He says, “There is a huge body of history that tells us what succeeds, and what fails, when trying to create technological standards. We stand right now looking at a future where the decisions we make today will decide if we are to be condemned to years -- even decades -- of frustration and pain with interoperability or, if we make smart decisions and work together well, we can avoid that and lay the groundwork for innovation and a successful marketplace of products and ideas.”

He compares the work to other major infrastructure efforts, such as the laying of the railroad, the interstate highway system, or telephone lines, saying, “frameworks for transport (be it physical or electronic) are what have driven our economy and our society forward. We have a new category of transportation that is needed and now is the time to build something that works for everyone and will stand the test of time.”

Noah’s father was an engineer at Cornell in the 1950s and worked on a bridge project that is now a key approach to the Holland Tunnel in New York. Noah remembers once while driving into the city, his father pointed to one of the stanchions holding up the bridge and said, "I remember working with the team that laid that there." Noah says, “I was amazed that decades later it was still there and holding up every car that drove into the tunnel. Being a part of something that will provide infrastructure that will last decades is something very, very special.”

Noah encourages others to be a part of these efforts as well. To those interested in participating the project, he advises, “Simple: get involved. If you're a developer, download the code and start building. Look for an open issue and fix it. If you're an OEM, put it in your products or call someone from the community to help you plan and implement adding AllJoyn to your products.”

Currently, the issues and challenges that face the project are “myriad and non-trivial,” Noah says. A major challenge involves simply defining and explaining the benefit of AllJoyn not only to those who use it but also to those who will see the AllJoyn Certified mark and need to understand the value and utility of that claim. According to Noah, the board is “thinking very hard about how to market and merchandise the AllJoyn brand in 2016.”

Despite the challenges, however, the work of building an infrastructure for the future is important and changing rapidly. Noah says, “AllJoyn is just a couple years old; imagine what the next five years has to hold. For us, the hard problem we are trying to solve is that of the infrastructure that underlies innovation. Plugging systems together, providing coordination, configuration, and logic to organize all the devices and services that will be connecting is really challenging and something we're committed to doing for the benefit of our customers and partners.”

Noah’s enthusiasm for the AllSeen Alliance project is clear as he says, “The Alliance is young and moving very fast. It is thrilling to see this coming together and to know that it will likely be the backbone on which developers and OEMs will be relying in the years to come. It is akin to being around when HTML or USB were being defined. The work we are doing today will leave a lasting imprint on technology for years to come and I, hopefully, will be able to look back and recognize that I was able to contribute and play a role.”

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