Twilio, a service that lets developers access tools tied to phone networks, such as voice or text messaging, has unveiled an IoT platform that will handle security and connectivity for a set price over ten years. The new platform is called the Microvisor IoT Platform and is based on Twilio’s Super Sim module and the acquisition earlier this year of secure IoT platform provider Electric Imp.
The goal is to offer developers and easy way to provide connectivity on connected devices, as well as secure those devices and manage them, all without having to handle the low-level code associated with authenticating or managing devices on a cellular network. That sort of management and provisioning can be painfully difficult for modern developers simply because the cell networks operate on a complicated and almost archaic version of software and rules. So Twilio is doing what it has always done with the cell phone networks — making them easier for developers to use.
In the case of the Microvisor platform, Twilio is making it easier to combine connectivity with microcontrollers (MCUs), the low-power, low-performance chips used for sensors, appliances, and other IoT devices. Because MCUs often have little computing power and memory they are more power-efficient and also cheaper, which leads to their inclusion in a lot of products. However, developing for MCUs has been complicated by fragmentation in their operating systems with dozens available. Most people trying to build an IoT device don’t want to become an embedded engineer or a connectivity expert, so Twilio’s new platform is there to help.
Evan Cummack, general manager of Twilio IoT, said the company realized it could create the new platform once ARM announced that it would build a secure enclave on microcontrollers, bringing its ARM Trust Zone to MCUs. Twilio runs its underlying code that handled the complex connectivity, updating, and other software in the Trust Zone and leaves the rest of the chip available for developer code. It’s the equivalent of creating an automatic transmission for the IoT so developers don’t have to learn how to drive a stick.
The platform lets developers release security updates over the 10-year supported life of the module with Twilio handling the search for vulnerabilities and the application of patches. This is a similar service to Microsoft’s Azure Sphere, except Azure Sphere is not applicable to microcontrollers. The platform will also compete with other solutions trying to offer constantly updated security services such as Foundries.io. In addition to monitoring for vulnerabilities, the platform lets developers remotely debug their devices and perform updates. Finally, it also lets developers code in whatever language they choose as opposed to having to spend time learning an embedded operating system.
The platform will arrive in beta once the hardware that supports it launches. So if you are building a product that you want to launch in early 2021, Twilio wants to hear from you. Twilio is waiting for STMicro to release microcontrollers that support ARM Trust Zone, which should happen within the next month. At that point, Twilio will announce the pricing. For now, all we know is that it plans to support the devices for 10 years for a set fee. This will be important for companies who want to build connectivity into their devices without the uncertainty of knowing how much they will end up paying for data and basic cloud costs over the life of that item.
We’ve seen several consumer hardware companies run into an issue where they didn’t keep selling enough hardware to support their ongoing connectivity and cloud costs and thus had to shut down their devices or find a subscription plan that kept new revenue coming in. The Microvisor Platform won’t cut all ongoing cloud costs — devices that need to share data for multiple integrations or perform machine learning will still have additional bills from their cloud provider — but it will let developers and product managers build in some basic functions and connectivity for a set up-front fee.
As the IoT matures, platforms like this are an essential ingredient in helping developers get over some of the humps associated with building a physical device and building a business model that doesn’t ask a lot from the end consumer.