Why are IoT platforms so darn confusing?

Everyone talks about IoT platforms, but they don’t always agree on exactly what they’re talking about. This analysis helps make sense of it.

Why are IoT platforms so darn confusing?
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Lots of vendors are eager to sell enterprises an “IoT platform,” but it’s not always clear exactly what those “platforms” actually do, why you need one, and which one you should choose. As Hackernoon put it in April 2018:

"We’re a cross-functional, fully integrated, full-stack, serverless, hardware agnostic, AI, IoT platform that offers you infinite infrastructure . . .“ said every confusing IoT platform website ever.

Multiple overlapping IoT platform definitions

So, what is an Internet of Things (IoT) platform? Observers don’t always agree — in fact, they don’t always agree with themselves! For example, from that same Hackernoon post: “An IoT platform is an integrated service that offers you the things you need to bring physical objects online.”

But in 2019, a newer Hackernoon post had this to say: The term ‘IoT Platform’ is really too broad to be useful to most people.” Worse, it cites the 2018 edition of Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies: IoT platforms have crested passed the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and are ready to fall into the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

IoT for All, meanwhile, says: IoT platforms are the support software that connects everything in an IoT system.” In this model, IoT platforms:

  • Connect hardware, such as sensors and devices
  • Handle different hardware and software communication protocols
  • Provide security and authentication for devices and users
  • Collect, visualize, and analyze data the sensors and devices gather
  • Integrate all of the above with other web services

Maybe Postscapes’ definition is simpler: IoT data platforms offer a jumping-off point by combining many of the tools needed to manage a deployment from device management to data prediction and insights into one service.”

But I actually think this 2016 description from Link Labs gets closer to the mark:

An Internet of Things (IoT) platform is the support software that connects edge hardware, access points, and data networks to other parts of the value chain (which are generally the end-user applications). IoT platforms typically handle ongoing management tasks and data visualization, which allow users to automate their environment. You can think of these platforms as the middleman between the data collected at the edge and the user-facing SaaS or mobile application.

That last line is key because to me, an IoT platform is little more than a fancy name for the middleware that connects everything together. i-Scoop focuses on that aspect: “An IoT platform is a form of middleware that sits between the layers of IoT devices and IoT gateways (and thus data) on one hand and applications, which it enables to build, on the other.”

Perhaps, though, IoT platform vendor KAA offers the most honest description. While acknowledging the middleware aspect, the vendor also allows that “an IoT platform can be wearing different hats depending on how you look at it.”

Hundreds of IoT platform vendors

Still, the confusion isn’t stopping vendors ranging from Amazon Web Services (AWS) and IBM to Oracle and Salesforce from selling IoT platforms. In fact, back in 2017, IoT Analytics compared a whopping 450 IoT platforms. (That number was up from 260 in the firm’s 2015 analysis and 360 in 2016. But though leading products are growing at more than 50 percent a year, the market remains highly fractured.)

The bigger question, though, is exactly what is IoT Analytics talking about when it looks at IoT platforms? The firm separates IoT platforms into five categories:

  • IoT Application Enablement Platforms
  • IoT Device Management Platforms
  • IoT Cloud Storage Platforms (IaaS)
  • IoT Analytics Platforms
  • IoT Connectivity Backend (Platforms)

Makes sense, right? But in the most recent Hackernoon post, there are just two kinds of IoT latforms:

Well, that description makes sense, too — as far as it goes. But wait, there’s more! The 2018 Hackernoon post cites four kinds of IoT platforms:

  • End-to-end IoT platforms
  • Connectivity management platforms
  • IoT cloud platforms
  • Data platforms

Even more confusing, Hackernoon contend that those platforms can be separated into four vertical markets:

  • Hobbyists
  • Consumer electronics
  • Industrial IoT solutions
  • Industry-driven vertical market solutions

Why you (may) need an IoT platform

Sheesh, this is getting really complicated. So, let’s try to make it radically simpler.

The Internet of Things Wiki recently updated its list of top IoT platforms and used the post to explain that in an IoT implementation, “The gap between the device sensors and data networks is filled by an IoT Platform.” The point of such a system, obviously, is to help enterprises fill that gap more quickly, effectively, and efficiently than they could by building those solutions for themselves.

But because the category is still evolving, Hackernoon advises enterprises to treat “emerging technologies, such as IoT platforms, … more like strategic partnerships than assets or commodities.” Makes sense to me. After all, can something you can’t even clearly define really be a commodity?

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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