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Smart developers should look to IoT platforms to conceive apps

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Kishore Jethanandani Principal, FuturistLens

The Internet of Things (IoT) holds the promise of a new wave of app development: IoT apps. It interweaves sensors, connected devices, networking, cloud, and analytics—elements that can be combined in countless ways to yield new applications. The rub is the complexity. Toolsets from platforms like the recently launched Brillo from Google and HomeKit from Apple help to cope with the maze that is the IoT. Smart developers will pay particular attention to the integration of the ecologies and sub-systems across the universe of the IoT.

Fragmentation and connected devices

The IoT is fragmented at several levels: the radio networks, the mesh networks, operating systems, and connected devices. "A seamless end-to-end integration of these individual sub-systems is a prerequisite for realizing the value of IoT, which is analytics," says Peter Jarich, VP of consumer and infrastructure at Current Analysis. Connectivity is not a panacea, as "the demands on security and usability only grow as progress is made with connectivity," Jarich adds.

At each level of integration, from individual development environments to the larger universe of IoT, the possibilities for IoT app development increase progressively:

  • Multiple radio communication technologies used by an assortment of devices
  • Operating systems meant for mobile devices don't easily adapt to low-power sensors
  • Proprietary standards and platforms for connected devices
  • Divergent means of interconnection across ecologies of connected devices
  • Multiple networking protocols for mesh networks
  • Limited integration with analytical software in the cloud or with the fog

Mesh networks, which interconnect devices locally, expand the possibilities of application development in the home as information from one device can prompt a service from another. Google's Nest, for example, can sense if your approaching car is equipped with Automatic, a car adapter, and will begin to warm up your home.

The greater the flow of data between devices, the more possibilities there will be for application development. Google has entered into at least 15 partnerships with device makers, broadening the range of relationships possible between them. This presumes that Brillo, a stripped-down version of Android, would have the ability to connect to low-power devices with memory as low as a few kilobytes.

Apple and Google face off

Apple's minimalist strategy is confined to offering a single platform: HomeKit. By contrast, Google integrates software and hardware through Brillo, related connectivity software, and a universe of devices centered on Nest. Their divergent approaches reveal their priorities: "In a context where consumer preferences are still uncertain, Apple has chosen to gain customer affection by letting them make their own choices from the hardware it certifies from the best existing vendors. HomeKit has published guidelines for software development and integration of approved devices," says Mike Krell, an industry analyst specializing in home automation at Moor Insights & Strategy.

"Google, by contrast, has an eye on analytics and is seeking an integrated solution to ensure access to data. It acquired Revolv to interlink with any flavor of radio communications technology. Nest is the centerpiece that connects with other devices, such as Dropcam (renamed Nestcam), and several home devices from partners (works with Nest program). Its Thread and Weave software for cross-platform integration and mesh networking help maintain control over data collection," Mike Krell added.

Apple and Google are superseding existing IoT proprietary standards with open standards that help to connect across multiple vendor ecologies. Google, for example, is looking to connect with AllSeen Alliance's AllJoyn framework. Google's Weave APIs help to connect with devices outside its own ecology.

Apple, on the other hand, has hubs that act as bridges to alternative ecologies. Vendors such as Insteon, which use both Z-Wave and HomeKit, act as bridges to devices that don't use HomeKit. But these devices don't get to control home devices on HomeKit. Apple has designed a convenient interface organized into "rooms" that host accessories, such as lights, thermostats, appliances, etc.—all of which can be controlled through mobile phones with Siri. Google's answer to HomeKit isn't clear, although Google does provide for control from phones.

Apple has consistently outperformed its competitors by excelling at user interface development. Its platform for IoT is no exception. Analytics, however, is the linchpin of new services. Here, Google would have much greater control over the data sources and their processing.

Home automation in the IoT universe

Home automation is only a beachhead for expanding the services that are possible through the flow of information outside the home as well. Home automation existing in isolation from other services is unlikely to be of sufficient value to customers. Utilities, for example, want to gain access to home devices to reduce peak load and lower energy costs.

"The best practice in solutions development has moved beyond niche applications development to integrating with several sensor ecologies, such as smart cities, and it will be hard to survive with a narrow focus for applications development beyond 2025," says Joseph A. di Paolantonio, entrepreneur and former VP and principal analyst at Constellation Research.

PTC's acquisition of Axeda and ThingWorx is a sign of the growing intersection of IoT ecologies. Axeda provides a machine for remote monitoring of devices, and PTC is a leading player in the computer-aided design and manufacturing space, while ThingWorx is an IoT platform company. "Axeda's machine cloud will help to remotely gather data on the state-of-health of consumer durables and predict their potential failure," says di Paolantonio. "Apple developers have worked on the ThingWorx platform, when it positioned for consumer applications, and [it] would be a bridge to integrate with HomeKit," he explains.

Developers who are able to adapt to the interaction between multiple ecologies will likely be most creative in application development. "It's impossible to integrate the countless standards and protocols that exist across the several ecologies in the IoT world. Developers are better served by open APIs that can be accessed from communities," di Paolantonio explains. He has also mapped out the ecologies in the IoT space and how they interact with each other.

Developers who specialize in one environment or the other now have help from communities to cope with a more diverse situation. "Collaboration among companies across these ecologies is helping to create communities where developers can access open APIs and other resources to develop applications and services enabled by data from a diversity of sources," says di Paolantonio. Apple is working with IBM and developers can use its Watson cloud to train data, while Google has its own Bigtable cloud.

Apple is attempting an untried method to integrate analytics with help from IBM, which doesn't have a history of serving consumer needs. Google has mastered the art of analytics solutions and is now attempting to extend it to IoT. Developers are likely to encounter less uncertainty over services development in the Google environment.

Experts widely acknowledge that the environment for IoT app development has improved considerably in the last two to three years with the progress achieved in connectivity and standards-based platforms. Yet, collaboration among companies across environments is an unfamiliar source of uncertainty for developers that will remain a challenge.

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