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Developing cost-effective GUIs for the IoT mass market

27 Apr 16  | Engineering |  ICT |  Technology
Developing cost-effective GUIs for the IoT mass market

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the most talked-about tech topics of the moment. Some feel that it is the future of connectivity and will have a monumental effect on human civilisation. Others are left feeling distinctly underwhelmed, unsure if the IoT's current wave of products, and subsequently their progeny, will provide anything more than solutions to trivial 'first world' problems. The vast majority of the 'solutions' thus far presented by the IoT fall into the 'nice-to-have' category, rather than the 'must-have', which is a little disappointing for a technological movement which could have the potential to change so much for so many. On top of this, progress in the field is slow: glacially so, for a tech trend.  

Another facet of the IoT discussion, which will be examined in a presentation by Julian Coates (North European Business Manager for Altia) at the UK Device Developers’ Conference this week, is the place GUIs have in the IoT, and how cost-competitive GUIs can be developed for mass markets. 

Some question whether the GUI, a once ubiquitous facet of computer technology, will still exist in the new Internet of Things. This answer to this question, of course, depends on how one defines the GUI. For example, some will regard any interface that uses a display with interactive visual components as a GUI, while for others, the original concept of a display with graphical widgets and a pointing device (also known as a WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing Device)) is the only real GUI. For the latter, the GUI is already in decline as touch-based interfaces, which lack at least the pointing device, become the norm.  For the purpose of this article, though, we’ll assume that GUIs, in one sense or another, are here to stay – at least for now. 

It is estimated that roughly 4 billion devices connected to the IoT will require a GUI. A vast market of incredibly different products, from cars to coffee machines; national power grids to night lights; air quality monitors to entire smart buildings, they will all nonetheless need to be accessible by the layman – someone who probably wants to learn how to use one, or maybe two interfaces, rather than a different one for every product. 

One way to reduce the costs of developing a functional GUI for the emerging IoT is to make a push for interoperability: to create an open-source platform that different developers can draw from to personalise their products’ individual UIs, but which will give a fundamental similarity of experience to the end-user.

A great guest blog by another Altia employee, Jason Williamson, suggests that a way to reduce one facet of the cost of delivering GUIs across the IoT is to ‘pack smart’. He posits that this would allow companies to reduce the cost of the hardware carrying the GUI, and thereby reduce the cost of bringing the technology to the mass-market. 

To explain his point, Jason gives the analogy of two men taking a trans-Atlantic flight. The first man, we’ll call him Bob, doesn’t want to spend much time deciding what to take with him, and so he pays the airline extra in order to take a large, checked bag in which he can pack pretty much anything he likes. The second man, Dave, does not want to pay the extra money to the airline and is happy to spend a little extra time deciding what to pack and squeezing it all into his carry-on luggage. To begin with, Dave needs to put in a little more effort than Bob, but in the long run the returns for Dave are manifold: he doesn’t need to pay the airline extra in charges, he doesn’t need to wait to check his baggage or reclaim it, his transfers (say from plane to train, or to another plane) are easy and hassle-free, and the cobblestones at their destination provided no trouble, while Bob was stuck hauling his huge suitcase over the bumpy ground. 

The large suitcase represents big, expensive hardware which easily supports everything you want to cram into your UI, but which increases the unit cost of your product. Using the smaller suitcase – or smaller hardware, such as a low-end processor – reduces the unit cost but increases the work involved in getting the best performance out of it – you need to pack well! As Williamson explains, it means that “every bit and byte matter, as does every CPU cycle. You need to take advantage of everything that the hardware offers to save you space and time. For example, display layers must be leveraged for performance and memory reduction. And using dual graphics pipelines and hardware accelerated graphics functions is essential to offload work from the CPU. Don’t forget about boot times. Prioritising asset loading to get the fastest start-up will also go a long way to making the hardware feel like it’s up to the task. If your hardware is limited, you need to use everything it’s got.”

This is of course means that it is more expensive, and requires more expert developers, to develop for cheap hardware, but when aiming for the mass-market, this initial outlay is divided across every unit shipped, which makes it a wise investment. 

High unit price is the top deterrent to consumer adoption of IoT products, according to this 2016 study by Accenture. This means that companies need to find a way to deliver sleek, easy-to-use products which deliver real value, all at a low cost. This presents a problem, in that the big hardware that easily delivers the performance drives up the cost, while the lower-cost equipment reduces unit costs but could compromise performance. 

Robert Marsh, CBSbutler’s specialist embedded systems consultant, believes the secret lies in hiring the best engineers, and that the answer to that is in hiring the right recruitment consultant. 

“To get the best performance out of cheaper equipment you need the right people to draw every iota of potential out of the hardware at hand. The best engineers can get as much out of smaller, cheaper hardware as a less experienced developer could get out of the most expensive equipment on the market. 

To find the right engineers for the problem, you need the right recruiter. The best engineers are rarely actively looking for work: they know the work will come to them, and to find them, a strong professional network is paramount, as well as the use of industry leading tools and techniques, honed over years of sourcing the best candidates for the job. The best recruiters know the specifics of their sector, and can provide expert advice on the best candidates for the job, as well as having access to a valuable pool of candidates to draw from to find the perfect fit for your role.”

Do you need a superhero engineer for your next project? Or are you a superhero who’d like my help finding your next role? Get in touch at or give me a call on 01737822000 for a confidential chat about what I can do for you!
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