In-brief: After a fall from grace in the mobile handset business, Nokia is betting that its ability to do scale and security will help its Impact IoT platform best a crowded field. We speak with Rajesh Kashawa, head of Nokia’s Internet of Things Business Unit.
Nokia’s fast tumble from the pinnacle of the global mobile phone market in the early 2000’s amidst the surprising and rapid ascent of newcomers Apple and Google is the stuff of legend: proof of the disruptive potential of technology innovation.
For most companies, that kind of dethroning and the collateral damage to the corporate balance sheet would be a coda: the final chapter in the history of a once high-flying company. (Think DEC’s sale to Compaq). But then you consider that, a mere 50 years ago, Espoo-based Nokia made most of its money selling toilet paper and galoshes. You realize that maybe Nokia’s admitted missteps in the merciless mobile handset business aren’t the end, or even the beginning of the end but (as Churchill mused) the end of the beginning.
Relieved of its mobile handset business, which Nokia unloaded to Microsoft in late 2013 for $7 billion, the company has been focusing its energies and resources in recent years in areas that promise to be far more rewarding than trying to divine the preferences of fickle mobile phone consumers and app developers.
In recent years, Nokia has retooled with a focus on connected things (the Internet of Things) and (importantly) the networks that connect them. The company acquired a controlling share of Alcatel Lucent for €15.6 billion in an all-stock deal earlier this year and bought the French connected health device maker Withings in June.
“Our vision is to expand the human possibilities of the connected world,” the company claims on its website adding, ambitiously, that Nokia will weave together networks, data and devices to “create the universal fabric of our connected lives.” In a Nokia-powered future, technology will “(blend) into our lives, working for us, discreetly yet magically in the background.”
Maybe. The first step on that road, of course, is to get devices and device makers on your platform. On that score, Nokia has been promoting Impact, a platform for Internet of Things devices, from smart meters to connected cars and other infrastructure.
Impact, (which is actually an acronym standing for Intelligent Management Platform for All Connected Things) was acquired by way of Alcatel-Lucent’s 2015 acquisition of Mformation, a New Jersey company that made mobile and ‘Internet of Things’ security and device management technology that was sold to mobile operators, service providers and enterprises.
Dr. Rakesh Kushwaha, the head of Nokia’s IoT Division, was MFormation’s CEO. In an interview with The Security Ledger, he said that, while there are scores of would-be IoT platforms to choose from, Nokia’s strengths are behind the scenes: more than a decade of supporting connected devices such as mobile phones and automobiles in the field and a robust, global infrastructure that is already managing 1.2 billion devices globally.
Though there’s at best a dotted line connection between the mobile phone business and the much larger Internet of Things, Kushwaha said Nokia’s recent acquisitions – Alcatel Lucent in particular – have given it deep experience and software assets in managing and supporting devices wirelessly.
Mformation, for example, was created to offer cell-phone like over the air security, software updating and management features to devices other than handsets, he said.
It lets customers host applications on an Application Development & Execution Platform with cloud based analytics and distribution back to the mobile edge. Data and event information can be collected, stored and monetized. Device support includes device configuration and discovery, service activation, software updates and patching, campaign management and so on.
[Read more Security Ledger coverage of IoT Platforms.]
The company’s first deployment in 2009 and 2010 was as part of a package of software and hardware from Hughes Telematics that managed remote software updates and data transfers to and from Mercedes-Benz vehicles in the U.S.
Kushwaha believes that the conditions for success in the mobile industry will presage success on the IoT. Namely: a streamlined process for connecting to- and managing remote devices, support for a heterogeneous device population, interoperability between end devices, and (of course) security and data integrity.
Within Nokia, the Internet of Things and security business units are grouped together while Nokia and Alcatel-Lucents’s previous investments in security heavily influence the company’s vision for the Internet of Things, he said.
Among those assets are: infrastructure-based authentication and encryption of devices, secure device communications, device attestation and so on. That security, coupled with the company’s ability to scale are key.
In April, Nokia also acquired Nakina Systems, a Canadian firm that makes security and orchestration software for virtual and hybrid networks and whose software is used by service providers. Among the key features of that platform, which Nokia had been using under the terms of a partnership, are identity access, configuration management and orchestration services..
For Kushawa, device interoperability is the key to strong device security. And it’s not easy.
“We know how long it took us – both the companies,” he said, referring to Alcatel-Lucent and MFormation.
In both cases, strong relationships with device vendors were necessary to get interoperability done on the platform before launching the device, Kushwaha said.
That differentiates Nokia from competitors like Microsoft (Azure), IBM (BlueMix) and Amazon (AWS), where a more DIY approach dominates – aiding speed to market, but likely at the cost of security.
“We believe that’s not the most secure way to do it. Device identification and interoperability should happen up front and in a secure way before devices get launched to the platform,” he said.
As for the future, Nokia is focusing on five verticals for now: connected (“smart”) cities, connected mobility (transportation, broadly speaking), connected utilities, public safety and healthcare.
“Anything that moves, Nokia wants to get involved in it,” he said, noting that the company’s LTE infrastructure is a huge asset.
The company will play in other areas, working alongside partners, but Nokia figures its existing investments give it an edge in the five verticals it has chosen to play in.
The rest comes down to seizing opportunities where they arise – and that tends to vary with the terrain. While fleet management is a big area in North America, in India, Nokia found that there was little interest in monitoring vehicles, but lots of interest in monitoring fuel storage facilities, where employee theft was a huge and costly issue, Kushwaha said. In Abu Dabi, on the other hand, public utilities are going through a refresh cycle, creating lots of opportunities for connected infrastructure solutions.
The challenge is that “everyone has a platform,” Kushawa said, noting vendors like Cisco and GE as well as vertical specific players like Harmon, which acquired the mobile management firm RedBend in 2015. Add to that list players like Intel, Samsung, startups like Aero and industry consortiums and open source players and the picture gets even more muddled.