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Open Source vs. Proprietary Firms on the IoT Battleground

By Jack M. Germain
Feb 25, 2015 5:00 AM PT

Technology wars are predictable. Every new wave of gadgetry brings a fight over who will be the next king of the software hill. The next big battle is brewing over control of the Internet of Things marketplace.

Open Source vs. Proprietary Firms on the IoT Battleground

The IoT is quietly gaining momentum as companies develop software to connect all sorts of consumer products to the Internet. Consumers see only convenience and extensions to their always-on mobile devices. Product makers see a pathway to streaming data that can be monetized from buyers' connections.

Could history be ripe for repeating itself as open source begins to take on the current, yet unsustainable, walled-garden core of the IoT? Based on the victories in some early skirmishes, innovations developed by open source start-ups may be the David in the here-again fight against proprietary Goliaths.

In past technology battles, the one deciding factor was grounded to who could force adoption of a platform standard. Might made Right, and to the victor went the spoils.

Today's skirmish line victory could well be settled by that same factor. But the "might making right" could well be the purchasing power driven by open source vendors.

"The driver goal is with the developers. If you drive the developer ecosystem, you are more likely to find what I would call the Angry Bird of IoT," Maarten Ectors, vice president of IoT, proximity cloud and next-gen networking at Ubuntu/Canonical, told LinuxInsider.

Angry Bird Mentality

The lack of IoT standards is nothing new. It was evident with application servers and operating systems. These technologies always start with something proprietary and then somebody wants to commoditize that layer because they wanted to offer something on top, according to Ectors.

In the IoT industry, the battle for standards is more complex. Normally in those markets the victor could control the whole market.

"I don't think in IoT there will be one person controlling everything. It is so complex. In that case what is easier is one platform that everybody can use rather than a walled garden," he explained.

What if the Angry Birds phenomenon holds true for IoT connectivity? Vendors and manufacturers would have an IoT that everybody wants and everybody uses.

"That is more likely to come from a garage than from a corporation," said Ectors.

Open Source Plays There

Garages are the playgrounds of innovators. As Ectors sees it, the marketplace needs a way to engage with lots of people trying millions of ideas to see who gets it.

The winner will be the ones who can translate that into the industrial use and for healthcare use, retail use, etc. The winner will be able to get lots of cooperation.

"Corporations tend to be slow in those areas. Innovation tends to win in those cases," Ectors predicted.

Enter the Bullies

The technology battles start at the top with huge players like Sony, Microsoft, Intel and Google. They want to dominate the market and grab the biggest piece they can, according to Radek Tadajewski, CEO of OORT.

"I understand this approach to lock people into one infrastructure. But at the end of the day, I would have to say that IBM's strategy was much more successful than Apple's strategy," Tadajewski told LinuxInsider.

When you let people use their equipment the way that they want to use it, it's much better than to lock them. That is the same situation existing with the development of IoT, he surmised.

"We see huge players who want to put out their own systems. This ultimately results in one or two competing standards. But all of the time there is one question. Why should people be locked into one ecosystem? The best thing to do is create a system that is truly open," he said.

Indeed, history is ripe for repeating itself, as open source begins to take on today's walled-garden core of IoT, agreed Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange.

At first the big waves of innovation in IT fought over proprietary hardware with its free software. The hardware became open -- the PC, and the software became a proprietary product -- Microsoft. Then software became open and free and enabled the Internet.

Next, the Internet services became proprietary walled gardens, as in Google, Facebook, etc. This is where we are today; so what is next? The Internet services will become open. The same will happen for IoT.

"We already see open versus proprietary competing. Nest versus Arduino [for example]. As today with Internet services, there are big bucks in proprietary services, too big to be retainable. Same for the IoT, the big deals were around proprietary solutions. Next up is open IoT," Laguna told LinuxInsider.

Open Innovation Matters

To further make his case about the need for open source, Laguna asked a riveting question. What if Microsoft had its own way?

The Internet would be running on Netbios, MAPI and SMB. Sounds horrible? Because it is, he said in answering his own questions.

"To create an explosive wave of growth and innovation, the foundation needs to be open. HTTP, TCP/IP, DNS, IMAP, etc. are all free and open protocols, implemented by free and open software that dominates the respective implementations (Apache, Nginx, Linus, PowerDNS, Dovecot). The same will happen for the IoT," said Laguna.

Much of the innovation's success depends on non-proprietary standards. One of the reasons for the numerous proprietary platforms is the amount of single product solutions available from vendors, noted Ian Skerrett, vice president of marketing and ecosystem at the Eclipse Foundation.

"We need a core set of open standards. These need wide adoption among IoT developers. Today there is a lot of proprietary protocols and technologies. I see a lot of movement towards standardizing messaging protocols and device management," Skerrett told LinuxInsider.

Standards Building

Controlling devices, both locally and remotely, has always been an everyday task in many market sectors like industrial and building automation. Technology evolution has led to the capability of connecting consumer devices and appliances at low cost, according to Riccardo Mazzurco, who heads strategy and business development for Link Your Things.

As in early stages of most markets, in the absence of well-established standards, there is a proliferation of incompatible proprietary protocols. Most market players are trying to secure their investments and market share by pushing proprietary platforms hoping to create industry standards.

"It is an easy guess that open systems will prevail thanks to the market need for portability, abstraction and agnostic interoperability," Mazzurco told LinuxInsider.

The first step in building standards is agreeing on what standards are needed for the IoT. Then we need to get industry adoption of them. That is how the Internet was developed, noted Skerrett.

With the IoT he sees a lot of investment going into the middleware tier. This involves activity among larger companies and numerous start-ups in developing platforms. The good news is that many of these platforms coming out are using some common standards.

"A good portion of the middleware vendors are using open source. But they are putting it within their proprietary software," said Skerrett.

State of Affairs

IoT development now is fraught with a series of sensors and actuators that connect to a gateway to provide Internet connectivity. On the back end the IoT needs platforms for protocols and brokering and device management.

The Eclipse Foundation is developing such a gateway and a variety of open source projects for those solutions. What Eclipse lacks so far is one platform to integrate all of this.

"I think we will get there. That is where I want to see us go. But it is too early in the process to get there," Skerrett said. "In a perfect world it makes sense to be there first. But as an industry we are still learning what is required for a platform."

Market Challenges

OORT takes an approach that avoids IoT vendor lock in. The company's solution lets consumers convert their analog and digital handsets into a smart device.

The company created a smart hub that handles both WiFi and Bluetooth. These are two of the most common radio standards in the world. This really lowers the cost for both manufacturers and consumers.

This is challenging the whole market," said Tadajewski."We are ready to share our knowledge and let other companies use this solution."

For the first time, this will allow the service providers and product makers to view direct connection with a bridge between them and their customers. The small module that manufacturers can place in their products lets customers control them through their smartphones, he explained.

This type of technology will reduce costs. The control module will eliminate the need for costly LCD screens. It will make unnecessary more costly electronic modules inside their products. Instead, consumers can use their smartphones as interfaces for their devices.

Smart Manufacturers

The ability to control all household products from a smartphone will save consumers frustration and added expense. It will make product makers smart vendors.

The use of existing WiFi or Bluetooth chips will tell vendors what their customers are using and where they live. This will give a new channel for continuing sales to maintain and supplement their products.

"This is going to change the whole market," said Tadajewski."It will let the winners of the IoT market be determined by the ones who have the most effective ecosystem. That will be the one with biggest amount of devices you can use with the classical system."


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him on Google+.


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