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Maximizing the benefits of open source in IoT

Dec 8, 2016 — by Guest Contributor — 637 views
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This guest column from VisionMobile Ltd. reveals trends from their survey of 3,700 IoT developers, and highlights key benefits of using open source in IoT.


A Guide to Open Source in IoT
by Stijn Schuermans, Senior IoT Analyst, VisionMobile Ltd.


With the dawn of the Internet of Things, software is making its way into every product, into every industry. And along with software come developers, who bring their beliefs, attitudes, expertise, and habits along with them. One of those is open source technology — a staple in the software industry since the 1980s, but a new and often scary concept for many traditional industries, whose businesses are built on protecting their assets and intellectual property.

In this article, we will illustrate how open source technologies permeate every part of the IoT development stack, and outline how open source can be used as a means of market control as well as a booster of innovation and a way to tap into the IoT developer talent pool. The data have been collected from 3,700 IoT developers in 150 countries across the globe, surveyed in Q4 2015 and shines a light on how big a deal open source really is in IoT, why developers love it, and how companies can create a successful commercial strategy around the use of open source by aligning themselves with the values of that core stakeholder group that are developers.

Please note: The data used for this analysis is drawn from developer surveys run by VisionMobile. If you’d like to share your thoughts and contribute to the analyst firm’s ongoing developer research, you can participate in the latest survey here (live until Dec. 23).

Open source is pervasive in IoT

First of all, let’s dispel the myth that open source is a niche phenomenon, the domain of hobbyists and idealists. Quite the contrary, the use of open source is pretty much ubiquitous among IoT developers.

Open source hardware and software are pervasive in IoT
(click image to enlarge)

More than 90 percent of IoT developers use open source software, open hardware, or open data in at least one part of their development stack. Fewer than one in ten IoT developers will never take up the open-source option, and rely exclusively on proprietary technology. The use of open source is truly mainstream: this high number of usage is maintained regardless of the motivation of developers to enter IoT (for money, for fun, or for learning); independent of their experience, the size of company they work for, or how much money they make; and whether they target consumers or enterprises.

Six out of ten IoT developers (58 percent) don’t just use open source technology, they also contribute to open source projects. Some are core contributors, others lend a hand occasionally, e.g. to fix some bug or other. Fact is that these developers are actively engaged in pushing the quality and pervasiveness of open source technology forward, making the community a formidable innovation engine. The amount of contribution increases with the amount of use, creating a virtuous innovation cycle. More contribution means that open source technology becomes more attractive to use, which again feeds the urge to contribute.

It shouldn’t surprise then that a plethora of open source tools and components are available in every niche of Internet of Things technology. Some are created by small startups or community groups; many are backed by major corporations investing serious resources. We present here just a few examples to illustrate just how widespread open source technology is in IoT.

Open source is the new standardization

Does this mean that companies should consider open sourcing their products, as part of a commercial strategy? While there are certainly some pitfalls to avoid (we discuss how in detail in our premium report Open Source in the Internet of Things), using and contributing to open source technology offers plenty of advantages.

In many cases open source fulfills a similar role as standardization: a way to gain efficiencies and stimulate innovation by commoditizing non-core, non-differentiating parts of the technology stack. There are the efficiency gains in using a common solution, in the same way as using open standards would provide. In fact, open source implementations of public standards could help solve the problem of interoperability, a major issue in the nascent Internet of Things. You could even consider the reduced training costs of new personnel, already familiar with the open source technology you use. Google did just that when open sourcing its MapReduce technology, for example.

Relative to using proprietary technology from middleware providers there is the advantage of controlling the underlying technological infrastructure of your solution, at each layer necessary to deliver the desired user experience, without the threat of the tool being discontinued. It is, therefore, no surprise that we see technology empires being built on open source plumbing; Google, Facebook, and Amazon, to name just a few. Companies like these are big contributors to open source technology, and will systematically open source some of their own non-core technology as well.

Two recent examples come from Facebook. The first is Wedge, a switch for data centers consisting entirely of open source software and open hardware components. And on the consumer side there is Surround 360, a 17-camera array and accompanying web-based software to capture images in 360 degrees and render them automatically, which the company hopes will dramatically increase the amount of content on its platform.

Specifically, in the Internet of Things space, open source solutions can help the industry to achieve those tens of billions of devices that pundits predict by the end of the decade, as well as the infrastructure to connect them all together. This level of scale might be unaffordable otherwise.

In many areas, the Internet of Things is still a technology in search of a need to address. Open source technology enables permissionless, low-risk innovation that could accelerate the search for new killer use cases. For big enterprises and startups alike, open source can represent the ability to explore new technology without big, up-front financial commitments, and with less concerns over future royalties or intellectual property lawsuits.

Open source technology could be used as a purposeful strategy to shrink a market and hurt competitors, as IBM did by open-sourcing the Eclipse IDE as an attack on Microsoft’s Visual Studio, or as Google did in funding Mozilla and its Firefox browser.

Competition from free open source alternatives has put pressure on the revenues and profitability of closed-source vendors. For example, the use of open source operating systems in embedded projects rose from 43 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in 2014, according to UBM tech. Commercial variants dropped from 41 percent at their peak in 2011 to 33 percent in 2014.

No doubt this shift in mind share has an even bigger equivalent in profitability. Differentiating features are not enough to keep the revenues at previous levels, and as open source solutions get better, there is a constant (and expensive) race to stay ahead.

Open source attracts developers

There is one more critical advantage of open source that merits our attention. Implemented properly, open source can be a way to attract top developer talent to your product or solution. Developers will be the key innovation engine of the Internet of Things; getting the best ones on your platform can give you a real competitive advantage.

Developers in our survey show great enthusiasm for open source. They are sensitive to the value proposition and ideals that the open source model offers. A whopping 78 percent say they will use open source technology “whenever they can” (as opposed to only when it’s superior to proprietary alternatives) in at least one area of development.

Using and promoting open source is a way to signal to developer that your company and technology is top-notch, in three crucial aspects:

  • Align yourself with developer culture and ideals — More than half of IoT developers (55 percent) cited ideology as one of their top-three reasons for using open source, making it the top motivation. They believe in open source, and select it because it is free-as-in-speech.

    This paints a picture of developers as idealists, actively thinking about and advocating for better business practices. By aligning yourself with that ideal, your company and solution will be regarded favorably by this key stakeholder group.

  • Highlight the quality of your solution and developer support — A third of IoT developers use open source projects because constant community improvement make them the best technology in the field. A similar number appreciates the great peer-to-peer support that comes with a vibrant open source community. These results once again highlight just how important the community is for IoT developers.

    This was a main conclusion from our February 2016 report on Best Practices for IoT Developer Programs, too. In that report, we found that a community of developers supporting each other (developer-to-developer) is both more powerful and more desirable to developers than vendors organizing direct support systems. Developers increasingly turn to their community as they get more experienced: once developers discover community support, they become open source converts for life.

  • Paint your technology as cutting-edge — Developers associate open source with the bleeding edge of tools and technologies. A fifth of IoT developers picks open source tech simply because it is new and exciting. This is a great way to on-board developers early, and educate them in your products. In fact, open source is a key way for one in three IoT developers to learn new technologies and improve their skills.


Open source is an established reality in the Internet of Things. It is already used by the vast majority of IoT developers — nine in ten of them use open source technology at least occasionally; six in ten contribute to open source projects as well. In parallel, we can find high-quality open source alternative for any type of tool or technology used by developers.

This can be either an opportunity or a threat. It’s a threat when you have a closed-source developer offering that faces open-source competition. A smart commercial strategy can help you dodge that danger.

But mostly, open source represents a giant opportunity for companies. Open source is a way to gain efficiencies and stimulate innovation by commoditizing non-core, non-differentiating parts of the technology stack, just like standards are. And equally powerful: open source allows you to position your company to onboard the modern kingmakers of IoT: developers.


About the author — Stijn Schuermans is Senior IoT Analyst at VisionMobile Ltd., which specializes in tracking mobile & IoT developer trends via comprehensive developer surveys worldwide.


This guest column was derived from VisionMobile’s whitepaper, “The essential guide to Open Source in IoT” (available for download here), and is similiarly released under the Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 license. VisionMobile invites you to share your thoughts and contribute to the latest developer survey here (live until Dec. 23).

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