Choosing an IoT platform provider

By Adam Lesser, Analyst, GigaOm Research

The projections for the number of connected devices that will populate the globe by 2020 seem to grow every year. Estimates have run as high as 75 billion connected devices by the end of the decade. And whether we reach that figure or not, every company at this point that produces a physical product is asking: Do we need to add connectivity to remain competitive, to improve product design, to provide value for our customers?

With this proliferation of connected devices, a number of traditional manufacturers of everything from lights to thermostats are facing choices about how to roll out a ‘smart’ version of their product.

Most of these traditional manufacturers often have great internal product design groups and even first class manufacturing facilities. But what most don’t have are internal IT cultures gifted in software development. To that end, an entire industry of platform developers has arisen to make adding connectivity to anything from a blender to a door lock seamless.

IoT platform providers take on the responsibility of managing back end cloud services, offering APIs, handling mobile app integration and in many cases actually offering reference designs or integrated chip modules with a processor and communications chip. You need to add connectivity to your line of washing machines and get them to market in 9 months? That’s where IoT platform providers enter the picture.

For OEMs confronting the challenge of efficiently adding connectivity, there are some important factors to consider when selecting an IoT platform provider. My top five considerations are the following:

1. Scalability and time to market

The whole reason OEMs partner with platform providers is because these specialized groups of software developers can help expedite time to market, particularly in sectors where competitors are moving quickly to add connectivity.

Asking a platform provider for estimates of time to market and consulting with other customers about their experiences is never a bad idea. Additionally for companies where the hope is that product volumes can reach into the hundreds of thousands, making sure the platform provider is prepared to scale up with robust software and infrastructure is a must.

2. Cost

The IoT platform market has become increasingly competitive and some analysts are estimating that there are at least a couple hundred players in the market. During a recent call with an executive at a leading platform provider, he noted that in their interactions with industry analysts and bankers, the first thing they bring up is the fact that there are now around 200 IOT platform providers in the market. Many platform providers will work on an annual license basis for their software and services, and may offer longer-term licenses.

For those OEMs needing chip modules, prices continue to decline and a Bluetooth or ZigBee communications chip can be had for about a buck. Integrated modules with a processor plus Wi-Fi chips are running in the $3.50-$5 range, depending on volume.

3. Security

IoT is becoming increasingly personal with wearables, health monitorsmonitoring and the smart home quick becoming markets where the numbers of devices are growing.

There’s a lot of data on individual behavior in these devices, ranging from travel history to health history. Securing that data is important, even if security may not be top of mind for those producing products for the lower end of the market. Good IoT platform providers will conduct regular security audits of their platform in addition to encrypting data and allowing user defined control over what data is shared.

4. Analytics

Not all platform providers will offer analytics services though some are actually building analytics into their platforms. What OEMs should look for is that they can access any needed data from their devices, particularly if they plan to use third party applications to mine that data.

Many manufacturers want basic information like IP location in order to map usage while others want more complex data about product use patterns in order to improve future designs. Either way considering what kind of data a company wants from their product and how to access that data is important.

5. Latency

With modern mobile and wired broadband, latency is a considerably smaller issue than it was even a few years ago. With that said, basic testing should be done on any platform in order to figure out not just the robustness of the platform running over a network, and also how much compute designers want to put in the cloud versus leaving on device. This decision has an impact on latency and local resilience of the product. Many IoT platform providers are encouraging device makers to leave more and more of the computing tasks to be performed in the cloud versus on device.

In the end, the decision to add connectivity to a device should be driven by a number of factors, none more important than whether connectivity actually results in a better product. Will it save money for the consumer, produce a better user experience, allow for greater piece of mind?

These can be complex questions related to changing human behavior due to smart phone use, as well as consumer expectations around how they want to control products and what those products should now be able to do for them.

When it comes to actually adding connectivity, the diversity of options in the marketplace is making it easier and easier for OEMs and startups with innovative product ideas to quickly get smart products to market. After all, there are is no shortage of IoT platform providers that would be happy to help expedite the growth of the Internet of things.

This post was written as part of the Dell Insight Partners program, which provides news and analysis about the evolving world of tech. Dell sponsored this article, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies.

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