BW Sessions: Zatar

BW Sessions: Zatar

Zebra's Mahoney. This is not her Avatar.

Zebra's Mahoney. This is not her Avatar.

by TODD STOLARSKI | Jan 10, 2016

In the wild, the zebra has never been deemed “king of the jungle”. Still, Illinois-based Zebra Technologies desires to be exactly that with Zatar, its cloud-based software service that is also the world’s first Internet of Things (IoT) platform for enterprise applications.

With Zatar, Zebra aims to set the industry standards that will tame the IoT jungle. It allows businesses to connect devices and create applications that provide accurate, real-time data and insights into location, movement and condition of assets. The data permits managers to make more informed decisions from anywhere in the world.

BuiltWorlds recently had the opportunity to sit down with Zebra marketing specialist Erinn Mahoney (EM) to dive deeper into what IoT is, what’s it’s not, how beacons are improving medical response time, and, of course, the “smart” toaster.

BW - What’s the main idea behind the Zatar platform?

EM - The main idea behind Zatar is the Internet of Things. It is an IoT cloud service with the idea that it will help businesses create end-to-end IoT solutions and help them get to market faster. By creating an avatar for your device, or a digital representation of it, you can then visualize and interact with the device data in a deeper, more controlled way. This increased device interaction allows businesses to then tailor their solutions to drive more effective customer engagement.

BW - What absence in the market does Zatar seek to fill?

EM - With Zatar, we look to enhance the technology that already exists and place it into the technology now known as IoT. We're looking to expand into sensor-based devices that can talk to each other and even some of those that aren’t even aware. Take that data (and) harvest it for use across different platforms.

BW - How many software developers did it take to roll out Zatar?

EM - Approximately 40. We are made up of hardware, software and UX/UI developers and designers from a wide range of backgrounds and locations. We have about 25 people in our Chicago office and the others are spread all over the world, from Colombia and Ecuador to Vancouver and the Netherlands.

BW - Has Zebra encountered any unexpected challenges when entering this previously uncharted IoT market with Zatar?

EM - Being able to focus on one thing, to know your customer is key. It’s difficult to build something for everybody. One of the things we are trying to achieve with Zatar is to position Zebra as the leader in “Enterprise Asset Intelligence”. But in order to move to the next level, we began Zatar by leveraging the resources and the assets that Zebra had. Remote device management was a logical first step. With our ARM mbed partnership, and our relationships with silicon manufacturers like Freescale, Zebra had become much more than just printers.

BW - What makes Zatar stand out from the pack in an increasingly crowded enterprise IoT services market?

EM - The IoT space like the proposed number of devices that will get connected is huge, so it is important to understand that this is an ecosystem play. Zebra is a leader in enterprise asset intelligence and our experience allowed us to determine where Zatar needs to fit in the IoT ecosystem, (specifically) enterprise and cloud service. Since IoT solutions are going to require a cloud component, Zatar is building out an enterprise grade service based on industry standards that will enable others to focus on their products and applications while using a commercial grade cloud service. This approach will enable them to get to market faster and easily scale their solutions. Today, we are the first ARM mbed-enabled cloud service and partner to leading silicon manufacturers.

BW - Are there plans to widen the Zatar platform to the consumer market?

EM - Yes, the platform is built to be scalable. So, if you're a small business, you can use our platform by putting your initial five devices up there for free, getting familiar with a cloud platform and exploring if it’s the right solution for your business. When you’re a small business, the ROI is rather small versus a big box retailer. But if a company feels it is going to grow well beyond where it is currently, and is willing to invest in an infrastructure that will grow along with it, then it’s a very smart investment. We can grow with them.

BW - What digital security measures has Zatar taken to ensure that the platform won’t fall prey to nefarious users?

EM - I’m not sure that one bad apple can do much with the system. We maintain proper operational separation. By using industry best practice cryptography and security standards, we have been successful in protecting our users’ data, both in motion and at rest. We also quickly update our servers whenever security vulnerabilities are discovered in any of our components. The IoT is a hot topic with security and we take that very seriously. Users only have access to limited resources based on permissions (avatars, their digital world, etc.) and nothing more.

BW -  A decade from now, how will the people be using your product, Zatar?

EM - I envision it will be used in a multitude of ways. Of course, we have our resources I've spoken of previously like our printers, but it will move far beyond printers into chip to cloud solutions, enterprise retail and sensing solutions using our rugged handheld Zebra computers running on Android applications, as an example.

I see it expanding further into research applications already being used in the healthcare industry, universities, and advancing the Smart Cities initiatives. I see it being used for water conservation, solar power, smart cars, etc. Really, the uses are endless. Even just considering what it could possibly be might be limiting its potential.

Right now we’re working with a research hospital in Leiden, the Netherlands. Their cardiology department approached Zebra to improve the response time for patients having a Myocardial Infarction (heart attack). We began developing our Time-Tracking Solution using Bluetooth low energy beacons (BLE). The beacon is placed in the patient's wristband when they get into the ambulance and as the patient comes in range of a tablet running a native android application, it tracks how long the patient has been in care and then starts tracking them with tablets placed at various points throughout the hospital.

Based on how they configure it, the doctors won’t have any guesswork involved. If the tablet shows green, the patient is good. If it's orange, the doctor needs to hurry up a little bit. If it’s red, that’s bad. Not only can this solution give instant feedback to the staff about the condition of the patient, but this data can be used and evaluated to make valuable improvements to the process and in the process save lives. This is one example of an end-to-end solution for healthcare, but this same solution can be used in a wide variety of industries that have a time-sensitive application and want to gain reliable insights without updating infrastructure or spending a lot of money on installation.

BW - In terms of IoT, IBM has predicted that we’ll have 25 billion connected devices by the start of the next decade. Do you find this number to be liberal, conservative, or accurate?

EM - I think the right question really isn't how many of those devices will be out there. It's who is going to be connected to those devices, and how? We are going to see a steady increase of connected devices, but there won’t be a million and one platforms -- that bubble will burst. It’s not only a platform race, but also a standards race that is constantly being evaluated by the IoT consortium and others. We’re pleased to be a part of this knowledge group striving to set realistic standards for the IoT industry. Establishing these standards is necessary in order to take the IoT beyond a trend. If you don't have that group, what is secure for one and standard for another may not link up. Before you know it, it is as if a million different people each have their own different light socket. What we are trying to go for is one light socket - plug the IoT in, one standard way. No one platform has won the race to the IoT moon, yet.

BW - People banter about winning that race, but the public talks about the smart toaster.

EM - Ah, the connected toaster, it’s become the mascot for IoT. This is exactly where the trough of disillusionment comes into play. Exactly what the IoT trend has experienced in the last few years. When a trend starts, it builds momentum, hype, optimism and unrealistic expectations. The hype increases like the initial ascent of a roller coaster, building anticipation. At the top, there's a frenzy and all of a sudden, it takes a deep dive. Companies fall off along the way as the trend levels out and the real stuff begins to happen. The emerging technology can actually begin to make valuable changes to a wide range of industries.

So, take your smart toaster example. It isn't IoT just because it’s a smart toaster, just because it can connect to the internet. It’s when your toaster knows that you've burnt your toast on every day except Wednesday, and then sets itself to make sure you don’t burn it ever again -- learning without human intervention -- that’s IoT. I haven’t seen a toaster do that yet, but I’m sure I will. It goes far beyond the ability to just connect to the Internet.

It’s the salmon you order telling you when it was caught, how cold it’s been kept, and when it arrived at the restaurant. It’s your washing machine being able to call your electrician for itself and then automatically deduct that payment from your account after the repair work is complete while at the same time update it’s firmware. Or your favorite retailer telling you how to move through their store more efficiently as soon as you walk in the doors by knowing what you might be looking for and also knowing that the recommended items are currently in stock. I don't need to connect to the internet to know when I’ve burnt my toast.


As Mahoney says, Zebra Technologies has been expanding its comfort zone in recent years. In 2014, it spent $3.5 billion to purchase the Enterprise tracking technology of Motorola Solutions. That same year, it also formed a partnership with the NFL to use beacons to measure advanced real-time player statistics during actual games. And now, it is rolling out Zatar.

Zatar is now collaborating with a handful of embed ecosystem partners, including ARM, AtmelFreescale, and Renesas. Working with those powerful allies will hope to deliver Zatar solutions from chip to the cloud along with full software support, security and plug-and-play connection that works out of the box. As Ms. Mahoney mentioned during our time together, to limit the platform would be shackling it. Zatar happens to be a portmanteau, a combination of two words combined to create another. In this case, avatar and zebra. As such, the potential of Zatar’s enterprise solutions reads better than the script to the upcoming James Cameron movie Avatar: 2, even if that film had a cast filled only with zebras.

To contact the author, write to or find him on Twitter @toddstolarski.

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