Why IoT Needs an Open Ecosystem to Succeed

Imagine if the internet had been built as a closed ecosystem controlled by a small set of organizations. It would look very different from the internet we know and rely on today. Perhaps this alternate version would run on a pay-per-use model, or lack tools and services that have been developed over the years by independent contributors and scrappy startups. Here is why IoT needs an open ecosystem to succeed.

The Open Internet

Instead, of a closed internet — we mostly enjoy an open internet. This is in part due to its origins: the internet was built to be fundamentally open, and this is what has allowed it to grow, change, and be adopted as quickly as it has been. In fact, the trend of an open approach propelling innovation is one that we see repeatedly for emerging technologies.

When it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT), we’re at the precipice of a similar innovation boom as witnessed with the internet.

IoT is slated for explosive growth: by 2021, Gartner expects that 25 billion connected things will be in use, enabling our smart homes, factories, vehicles, and more.

As more and more IoT devices come online, edge computing will become a necessity. Edge computing enables data to be processed and analyzed in real-time for business-critical use cases, such as self-driving cars, safety and security, and industrial automation.

As with the internet, we need an open, consistent infrastructure foundation for IoT and edge computing in order for these technologies to reach their full potential. While the challenges of building an open IoT are different than those we faced with building an open internet, this is an important problem for our industry to solve now, before we witness further fragmentation and vendor lock-in.

Where we are today with IoT

We’re currently in what I like to call the “AOL stage” of IoT—the phase of getting devices connected at scale, and working through the balance of proprietary vs. open approaches.

Back in the 1990s, America Online opened up access to the internet to the masses with an easy-to-use CD; by popping it in, anyone could easily sign up and get connected. However, the tradeoff for this simplicity was getting locked into the AOL ecosystem as the conduit for communication and search.

Over time, users became savvier, realizing they could connect to the internet directly through their ISPs and access more powerful search capabilities (Google, for example). As more people came online through their medium of choice, innovation picked up speed, giving birth to the internet boom and the ecosystem we know today.

IoT is inherently heterogeneous and diverse, made up of a wide variety of technologies and domain-specific use cases.

To date, the market has created a dizzying landscape of proprietary IoT platforms to connect people and operations, each with wildly different methods for data collection, security, and management. It’s like having many different “AOLs” trying to connect devices to the internet—needless to say, this fragmentation has resulted in unnecessary complications.

Companies beginning their IoT journeys are locked in with the vendor they start with, and will be subject to additional costs or integration issues when they look to scale deployments and take on new use cases. Simply put, IoT’s diversity has become a hindrance to its own growth. 

To avoid going down this path, we must build an open ecosystem as our foundation for IoT and edge computing. It’s only when open standards are set that we can scale the commercialization of offerings and services, and focus on realizing ROI.

Open ecosystems facilitate scale

What would an open ecosystem for IoT look like? When creating an ecosystem, there’s a spectrum of approaches you can take, ranging from closed to open philosophies. Closed ecosystems are based on closely governed relationships, proprietary designs, and, in the case of software, proprietary APIs.

The tight control of closed ecosystems sometimes referred to as “walled gardens,” can provide great customer experience, but come with a premium cost and less choice. Apple is a widely cited example of this approach. 

There are open approaches that offer APIs and tools that you can openly program.

The open approach tools enable an ecosystem of products and services where the value is derived from the sum of its parts.

Open-source software like Android is an example; it’s a key driver of a truly open, vendor-neutral ecosystem because of how it empowers developers. Having an open standard like Android’s operating system for developers to build upon not only promotes further innovation but also bolsters a network effect. 

To fully grasp the business trade-offs of closed vs. open ecosystems, let’s compare Android and Apple’s iOS. While Apple provides a curated experience, Android device makers have less control over the overall experience through deep software/hardware integration, and therefore need to find other differentiators.

Nevertheless, openness facilitates choice and scale—Android has over 70 percent of the global mobile OS market share. Even with Android’s openness, providers like Samsung have still been able to carve out market share by investing in innovation and a broader device ecosystem strategy.

An open future for the IoT

The IoT can have as great of an impact as the internet has had, but generating hundreds of closed, siloed ecosystems dictated by vendor choice is not the path to scale. A bright future for IoT is dependent upon our ability to come together as an industry to build an open ecosystem as our foundation.

Across hardware, operating systems, connectivity, applications, and cloud, we must bridge key elements and unify, rather than reinvent, standards in order to empower developers to focus on value creation.

Commercial offerings built on top of that open foundation may very well take a more “closed” approach; however, starting development with an open foundation will always provide the most scalability, flexibility, and transparency to maximize options for the long term.

Open-source collaboration is an excellent accelerator for this open foundation. The Linux Foundation’s LF Edge and Kubernetes IoT Edge Working Group, and the Eclipse Foundation’s IoT and Edge Native Working Groups are just a few of the initiatives exploring architectures and building frameworks to unite industry efforts and enable IoT and edge computing ecosystems to scale.

As they say, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, and I look forward to seeing the immense potential of becoming a reality when we have a common foundation to innovate on.

Jason Shepherd

Vice President of Ecosystem at ZEDEDA

Jason Shepherd is VP of Ecosystem at edge orchestration company ZEDEDA. Prior to joining ZEDEDA, Jason was CTO for the Dell Technologies Edge and IoT Solutions Division. His proven track record as a thought leader in the market is evidenced through his leadership building up the award-winning Dell IoT Solutions Partner Program and establishing the vendor-neutral, open source EdgeX Foundry project to facilitate greater interoperability at the IoT edge. Jason is active in LF Edge and other key industry efforts focused on IoT and edge computing. He was recognized as one of the Top 100 Industrial IoT influencers of 2019. He holds 14 granted and 25 pending US patents.

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