Eight Ways to Solve the Wi-Fi Authentication Issue for Devices

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It’s hard enough for consumers to enter a Wi-Fi network and password info on an iPad, but the connected devices of the future such as lawn irrigation systems, home automation, personal robots and other devices likely won’t have a screen or keyboard built-in.  And yet most devices must connect to the internet in order to function.

Figuring out a seamless user experience for getting these new devices authenticated to a network is one of the key challenges of the Internet of Things.  Not solving this problem elegantly means frustrated consumers, support calls and other costs that could hurt adoption and put companies out of business.

Here are some of the ways device makers are solving these problems today:

1)  Hard-coding
DIYers hacking at home typically embed a Wi-Fi or bluetooth shield into their prototypes and hard code any authentication information.  This is okay for the maker, but not acceptable for selling things on Tindie or for commercial designs.

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2)  Electric Imp

As we’ve written about before, Electric Imp has created a special Wi-Fi module for device makers that allows consumers to use a special smartphone app to transmit authentication info to the Wi-Fi module via a series of screen flashes. There’s a small learning curve involved, but overall it’s a clever way of avoid more tedious methods.

3) USB to PC

Many makers include a mini-USB port and require that devices first be connected to a personal computer.  From their, special programs are provided to transmit the auth information as a one-time setup. This is how the Withings WiFi Scale handles it.

handle replacement4) Embedded Cellular

Embedding a cellular chip is another way.  This gives a true out-of-the-box experience (just turn it on and it works).  This was the approach pioneered by Amazon Kindle. However this requires a carrier deal and variable cost tied to usage.  Since many sensor applications don’t require much data transmission, it’s possible that device manufacturers could subsidize the connection costs in the purchase price of their devices.

5) Hybrid Cellular / Wi-Fi
Use an embedded cellular chip to connect to the internet and handle configuration of the user’s Wi-Fi via a web application or mobile app.  Once connected, the cellular connection is only used if the Wi-Fi network information changes or Wi-Fi goes down.  I haven’t seen any manufacturers taking this approach yet.
6) Bluetooth LE + Base Station
This will be a popular combination, but complicated for users and manufacturers.  Bluetooth LE is wonderful for sensor applications because it can provide connectivity and long battery life, but it doesn’t provide a connection to the Internet, so a Wi-Fi gateway (which must be provisioned to a local network) must be in place.
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7) Screens and buttonsIf the device already has a screen and a mechanism for input, configuration info can be gathered directly.  This is how the Nest Learning Thermostat works (and even then, they’ve made sure the device is useful even if the consumer never gets the device connected to Wi-Fi.)
8) Act as Hot Spot
In this pattern, the device manufacturer includes a Wi-Fi chip and starts it off in hotspot mode, instructing the user to connect their smart phone or home computer over Wi-Fi to the device directly.  From there, an on-board web server presents an interface to directly configure the device.
It’s a complex matrix of trade-offs on the dimensions of usability, battery life and device cost and none of the solutions seems very “Apple-like” in terms of elegance.  It will be great to see what industry comes up with to solve this key challenge.
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Please share your thoughts here.
  1. chrismorse says:

    It sure would be nice if it was super easy and standard.   Ideally I could just login to my wifi router, find the device and add it to the network.

  2. chrismorse says:

    It seems to me that the future here is #5.  It should just work for the end user and this is the easiest.  There may be an opportunity to build services around this for makers.  All of the big wireless players talk M2M but it still seems really painful to get it going.   Is there anyone that has an agreement with someone like Sprint to resell this online in an elegant way?


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