Spark lauches open source WiFi module for IoT

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Kickstarter success story Spark has released its open source hardware and cloud platform for bringing ‘things’ online. Called the Core, the product is an ARM powered WiFi module that can be controlled and updated through the Spark Cloud service. Spark raised over $567,000 through its Kickstarter project which initially asked for only $10,000 to fund the Spark Core WiFi connector kit. It now has $4.9 million in Series A funding backing the product launch and Cloud roll-out and Spark’s goal of making objects smart but not expensive.

The open source approach of the project is intended to pre-emptively counter the fragmentation that is creeping into the IoT ecosystems. As businesses seek to introduce their own products and platforms, there is the danger that a proprietary approach from a number of large businesses will create a siloed environment where one family or brand of devices are incapable of communicating with another rival family.

By focusing on an open source API to control the Spark products, any project that uses the Core should be perfectly interoperable with any other devices out in the world which are using the same open APIs and protocols – unlike the potential silo-mentality found in projects such as Qualcomm’s AllSeen Alliance, which might strive to create interoperability through the universal AllJoyn language but risks shutting out those who don’t adopt the language and achieving the opposite of what the Alliance public claims it wants to accomplish.

Spark says that adding WiFi connectivity to a product is either very expensive, very difficult or both. The aim of the Spark Core was to solve this problem by making the Core compatible with Arduino, a popular hardware development platform. This enables the Core to become a modular component that can be added to larger Arduino-based projects, and Spark sells a number of other Arduino components, known as ‘shields,’ which add to this modularity. The Core uses the same code base as Arduino, which is called Wiring.

The Core itself measures 2cm wide and 3.3cm tall, and is powered by a 72MHz ARM Cortex M3 microcontroller and a CC3000 802.11 b/g WiFi module from Texas Instruments – which lets the Core exploit TI’s Smart Config network joining protocol to speed up bringing objects online. The module can be updated over the air using the Spark Flash, which removes the need to disassemble a device to tweak its firmware.

The Core has 2MB of flash memory, and can be bought for $39 from Spark. The Core can be purchased with either a chip antenna or a u.FL connector if the antenna needs to be located further from the Core than a chip antenna allows. If the Core needs to be added to an Arduino board, Spark sells the shield necessary to bridge the Core-Arduino gap for $20.

The hardware designs for the Core are open source and are available online, and uses readily available components from major vendors. Spark have chosen to stick to open standards for the software side of things too. The Spark ecosystem uses 128 bit encryption, AES for the hardware and SSL for the REST (representational state transfer) API and software communications. But the most interesting side of Spark is found in the Spark Cloud.

Spark’s Cloud project is an extension of the OTA update functionality that lets developers amend their projects once they have been released into the wild. This is a key feature for those looking to sell their projects to customers, but the functionality is only useful if you can use it to update the rest of the device and not just the Spark Core.

But the Spark Cloud also allows Spark’s network of servers to facilitate communication between Cores and other networks, allowing applications such as video streaming and location data reporting to be conveyed anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Spark promises that this functionality will remain free to use for anyone using the Core, as well as releasing an open source version of the Spark Cloud for use in local networks and private or corporate servers– but we aren’t sure how they plan to pay for the scalable capacity needed if the Spark project takes off in a big way and developers stop buying the Cores directly from Spark. We aren’t convinced that the Spark Cloud will be free to use in the future indefinitely.

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Peter has been involved in technology for 35 years, and is now the Lead Analyst at Faultline, a digital media research service offered by Rethink Technology Research. In his work at Faultline Peter has built an understanding of wired and wireless Triple Play and Quad Play models including multiscreen video delivery, taking in all aspects of delivering video files including IPTV. This includes all the various content protection, conditional access and digital rights management, encoding, set tops and VoD server technologies. Peter writes about all forms of video delivery is fascinated with the impact IP is having on all of the entertainment fields, and calls his service Faultline because of the deep faults which can devastate large established companies operating in the fields of consumer electronics, broadcasting, content delivery, content creation, and all forms of telecommunications operators, as content begins to be delivered digitally. Peter is currently advising major players and start up ventures in this field, and has both written and validated business plans in the area.