clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Here’s your first tech buzzword of 2017: ‘Brownfield’

It may not be the sexiest idea to make preexisting technologies such as tractors “smart,” but the potential payoff is staggering.

A “smart” tractor can be rented for $75 a day in Kaduna, Nigeria.
Hello Tractor

As the Internet of Things continues to manifest its potential in different industries, more and more brands and enterprises are rushing to grab a piece of the pie, which is forecasted to effect a $11.1 trillion economic impact by 2025.

There’s a lot of hype and activity surrounding IoT, which is very positive and can help expedite its growth and proliferation. However, the approach being embraced by most newcomers and early adopters leaves a lot to be desired. Usually, designers and manufacturers are inclined to hop on the IoT bandwagon through “greenfield development” — creating products from scratch — rather than “brownfield development” — connecting existing devices, systems and infrastructure to the cloud.

This is understandable. Unlike brownfield development, the greenfield approach provides developers and manufacturers with a clean sheet, no constraints imposed by legacy products, intellectual property and existing designs, or production lines.

However, the greenfield approach introduces some fundamental problems and challenges — especially at the enterprise and industrial level — which can hold back the IoT industry and bog down the rate at which IoT is being trusted, embraced and adopted by consumers, businesses and industries.

The allure of greenfield development

The hundreds and thousands of new IoT gadgets being shipped to store shelves every month are surely creating the impression of growth. But they are also giving the impression that the Internet of Things is in reality the Internet of Gadgets.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing manufacturers “reinvent the wheel” by creating proprietary hardware and software to power their IoT devices. They face, and fail to deal with, the multitude of IoT development challenges — often simultaneously.

The unintended consequence is a fragmented IoT landscape plagued by an endemic lack of standards, creating products that are insecure, unreliable, unmanageable and weak at communicating with one another. Interoperability is a huge issue, since the future of IoT is not devices that can be remotely controlled and send data back to the cloud, but rather devices and systems that can autonomously communicate between each other and reliably coordinate their actions.

Importantly, greenfield development obscures the larger IoT opportunity, which lies in legacy systems, products, facilities and infrastructures that have been tried and tested for years and are built to last many more. The costs of replacing them with “smarter” versions will be huge, and in many cases, legacy systems have become so ingrained and coupled with their surroundings that ripping them out will trigger chain reactions that can expand beyond control.

All of this is leading to IoT becoming falsely known as a luxury industry. The bigger IoT picture — which is efficiency, reduced operation costs, predictive maintenance and autonomous systems that can interact and operate without human assistance — is being clouded by nice-to-have gadgets that don’t necessarily deal with critical day-to-day problems.

The case for brownfield IoT development

Brownfield development encompasses up to 95 percent of the disruption opportunity that IoT presents. That’s because it encompasses everything that has surrounded us for the past several decades, from buildings, roads, bridges, power plants and factories, to long-established brands of consumer appliances such as AC units, fridges and water heaters. It may not be the sexiest idea to make technologies such as tractors “smart,” but the potential payoff is staggering.

Through brownfield development, there is the potential to make health care more effective, make our cities more efficient, reduce traffic and congestion, reduce energy consumption, grow our food more intelligently, fight pollution, make our roads safer and lay the groundwork for the future of autonomous devices and shared economies.

However, transitioning to IoT is more than just tacking a few sensors and controllers onto existing products and adding an internet connection. Connecting things to the cloud that haven’t been designed and produced with connectivity in mind is, in fact, a huge engineering feat. Moreover, most of the firms that own and produce these things have no prior knowledge and experience in developing for connected environments, and that makes brownfield development even more challenging.

Manufacturers who want to engage in this process already have a lot of legacy hardware, embedded software and firmly established production lines. These have been developed from years of experience and quality testing, and companies would rather stick to them when making design decisions and technical choices rather than spend huge amounts of money to move into new, uncharted territory. That’s why many brands and enterprises remain wary about getting involved in IoT, despite acknowledging its potential impacts.

Brownfield development made simple

IoT companies going after the brownfield opportunity will be competing on their ability to create a seamless and secure integration of legacy products into larger ecosystems, while providing the analytics and interoperability required to leverage the full power of IoT. Importantly, big brand names and enterprises don’t have another decade to design, test and manufacture their new IoT-powered products and systems. They need it now — in fact, they needed it yesterday.

Over the past two decades, I have developed a number of mass-produced connected consumer products — many before the term “IoT” was coined. Some were created at small startups, others at larger companies like Microsoft and Google. This enabled me to observe the birth of what we now call IoT through the lens of familiarity with the challenges connected-device developers face and struggle with every day. Given that, I have come to believe that there are four pillars foundational to any IoT company looking to successfully capture the brownfield opportunity:

  • End-to-end solution: The platform must encompass everything from the hardware, to scalable cloud services, to mobile apps and development tools for managing devices.
  • “Plug and play” integration: Adding connectivity to a legacy product should be immediate, and without heavy lifting on the part of the manufacturer.
  • Security by design: Security, encryption and device authentication software are baked into the platform, relieving developers from coding and/or layering third-party software.
  • Interoperability: Devices should be able to communicate with each other regardless of brand or network protocol. Also, developers should be shielded from the idiosyncrasies of specific communication of radio hardware; they need simple and consistent APIs for reading and writing device state.

These are the cornerstones of a reliable and secure IoT infrastructure that allow developers to focus on the functionalities of their smart products and applications without the need to worry about the challenges that are inherent to the IoT industry.

With continuing initiatives and innovations in these areas, brownfield development can become orders of magnitude easier and less challenging for companies whose legacy products have demonstrated value for decades. And, at last, IoT can manifest its true potential to revolutionize the world we live in.

Joe Britt is the co-founder and CEO of Afero, the turnkey, end-to-end IoT platform that brings security connectivity to any product in virtually any industry. Britt’s Silicon Valley career began 25 years ago at Apple, followed by senior engineering roles at 3DO, Catapult Entertainment and WebTV. He was the first WebTV employee, and he built the OS used in every WebTV set-top box. After WebTV, Britt founded Danger Research in 2000 with co-founders Andy Rubin and Matt Hershenson. At Danger, he led the design of the Hiptop smartphone (sold in the U.S. as the T-Mobile Sidekick). Danger was purchased by Microsoft in 2008 for $500 million. Prior to founding Afero, Britt spent several years at Google working on Android hardware. Reach him @aferodev.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.