What types of tools are IoT developers actually using?
By Stijn Schuermans*
IoT platforms were on the cusp of reaching the peak of inflated expectations in Gartner’s Hype Cycle from August 2016. Not surprisingly — there are literally hundreds of them, and counting. Also, the word ‘platform’ is used for anything, from network infrastructure to hardware components to cloud services. In the end, IoT owes its boom in popularity to more and better tools becoming available for developers. In this article, we shed some light on the types of tools that IoT developers are actually using.
The IoT tool market is still underdeveloped and heavily fragmented.
Despite the proliferation of IoT platforms and other tools, the IoT tool market is still underdeveloped and heavily fragmented. We asked IoT developers to select technologies they use out of a list of 15 categories. On average, IoT developers use 2.9 types of tools in that list, or one in five out of the list; professionals slightly more at 3.5 tool types. That’s comparatively fewer than developers in other sectors like cloud, mobile, or web, where developers use a quarter to a third of the tools listed. Part of the reason is fragmentation: not every tool is comprehensive enough to be relevant to a large number of developers. In part, the low tool usage is due to underdevelopment of the tool market. 11% of IoT developers don’t use any of the tools in our list, compared to 6% of web developers and 3% of mobile developers, who we presented with similar sized lists. Either way, we expect to see a good bit of consolidation and development before we can call this a mature tooling market.
Professional IoT developers use more tools than amateurs.
Professional IoT developers use more tools than amateurs, as we said, but they tend to use specific types of tools more often. The biggest differences are seen in categories like software deployment tools, IoT cloud platforms, embedded operating systems, machine learning platforms, gateway middleware, beacons, message brokers, or fog computing. What all these technologies have in common is that they are components of a complete IoT solution, i.e. technologies that an engineer would integrate under the hood to implement a valuable product or project. Fog or edge computing — championed by Cisco — is notable by its absence: a mere 4% of IoT developers are working with this technology. It may be too early for this technology, or the need for it might not be as big as pundits proclaim. Time will tell.
The gap between professional and amateur use is virtually non-existent in hardware platforms such as single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi or prototyping boards like the Arduino or Intel Edison. These microprocessors and computers have become so cheap and accessible (i.e. easy to use) that everyone with a minimal technical background can play around with them and put them to productive use. Even wearables toolkits and middleware show signs of this level of accessibility.
We also don’t see the amateur-pro gap in high-level, integrating platforms: Smart Home platforms like HomeKit or SmartThings, smartwatch platforms like WatchOS or Android Wear, or voice platforms like Amazon Alexa. These are all areas (IoT verticals) that are easy to get into, easy to imagine (and design) a solution that scratches your own itch, and therefore highly popular among hobbyists, as we’ve highlighted in other reports. Attractiveness to hobbyists aside, these comprehensive types platforms lower the barrier for people to start building meaningful solutions quickly, whereas the component technologies from above are still more the domain of specialists. Even health & wellness data platforms like Google Fit or HealthKit — arguably a more specific, advanced domain — have only a small difference in usage between professionals and amateurs.
Some of the technologies in the list are specific to certain verticals: wearables toolkits are for wearables developers, Smart Home platforms for Smart Home developers, and so on. Or are they? 12% of developers who use Smart Home platforms are not currently targeting or planning to target that vertical, for example. That is a reasonably big number, even though the usage gap with Smart Home developers is indeed clear. Some of these technologies might be fairly generic, and might even be ‘misused’ for unrelated projects. In some cases like smartwatch platforms, developers might work on a smartwatch app as part of a broader IoT solution, without self-identifying necessarily as ‘wearable developers’.
Only 20% of retail IoT developers use beacons
Location beacons are an interesting case. Their most marketed use cases were in retail and hospitality applications. However, only 20% of retail IoT developers use beacons; a good bit less than the 27% to 33% in-vertical usage we see for other vertical-specific technologies. Furthermore, the gap between in-vertical and out-of-vertical usage is only 9 percentage points, i.e. half that of the other technologies discussed here. We take this as a sign that beacons may be overhyped, perhaps technologically, but more likely in terms of how valuable the use cases are to customers. In our previous State of the Nation report (Q3 2016), we noted that retail was the sector within IoT with the fastest attrition of developers, possibly due to a sense of disillusionment and kickback from the hype. The data on technology use in the retail vertical seems to support that hypothesis.
The potential remains enormous
We opened this article with Gartner’s claim that we’re at the peak of inflated expectations when it comes to IoT platforms. Our IoT research over the past years says that we’ve already passed it, with stalled population growth and high churn among developers, heading full-speed towards the trough of disillusionment. The key reason is that the technology is still too immature, very few platforms are finding product-market fit, and thus the majority of consumer-focused developers lack a platform that gives them a viable market. Of course the core technology marches on, with some mostly consumer-focused tools finding uses outside their original intended market. The potential remains enormous. However, it’s going to get worse before it gets better, with a lot of consolidation among the many existing technology platforms.
As a Senior Business Analyst, Stijn focuses on understanding how technology becomes value-creating innovation, how business models affect market dynamics, and the consequences of this for corporate strategy. He is the lead Internet of Things researcher in the VisionMobile team. He has been writing about IoT since 2012.