The Internet of Things needs app developers

Hung LeHong has a pop quiz for you. Within five years, guess how many items in the home of an average affluent American could be connected to the Internet? Think big.

Internet of Things signals opportunities for devs, vendors

According to LeHong, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., there are 500 opportunities for technology vendors to add sensors to physical objects and somehow bring them to life online. That means developers, who have traditionally targeted smartphones and tablets, will soon have a wider playing field on which to create apps. This trend, which experts call the Internet of Things (IoT), could create a major shift in the way apps are created, distributed and used.

Gartner, IoT, Hung LeHong, connected devices

Hung LeHong

"It's a huge opportunity for a lot of the consumer electronics companies," LeHong said during a Webinar last week (reg. req.)."Who will own the relationship in an Internet-connected home?"

Gartner forecasts up to 25 billion "things" will be connected to the Internet by 2020. Of course, many of those objects could be business-related and part of an enterprise IT project. The ability to use sensor networks, however, to monitor activities and exchange data between machines or human beings opens up considerable potential in a variety of consumer scenarios. Flower pots could send push notifications when they need to be watered, for instance, or a couch could send a signal to turn the TV set on every time someone sits on it.

The IoT will evolve through a combination of wireless protocols, embedded operating systems and companies that bring the various pieces of the puzzle together. This includes Palo Alto, Calif.-based People Power. which recently launched an SDK specific to developers who want to create apps for IoT-enabled environments. David Moss, one of the firm's co-founders and its CTO, said People Power has developed a cloud computing-based platform which can connect devices and data sources from sensor networks, sending commands back and forth. The idea is that hardware manufacturers would use this platform to enable their devices as a connecting mechanism, while the SDK would help get apps to work with the hardware.

"Hardware developers are really good at making hardware, but we really need app developers to build that user experience on top of that," Moss said. "The center of gravity in computing has shifted from desktops to laptops, and now to mobile phones and connected devices that will be found around your home."

A shifting mindset: developing apps to glean user data

Developers may initially be focused on identifying what kind of household items they can connect to and control, but Moss suggested they also think about how to create apps that leverage user data.

David Moss, People Power, SDK, IoT

David Moss

"If I have a connected thermostat, as an app developer I can build an app to talk to that thermostat," he said, citing Nest and other Wi-Fi companies that offer such products. "It's now possible to build an app that interfaces with those devices using purely open APIs. You can then look at the data inside a user's account as a way to offer them a service. With a thermostat, perhaps it would be sending out monthly reports on how the thermostat is doing, or warning if your HVAC is about to fail."

This is an important point, Moss said, because services might be where the money is for developers, as they offer a recurring revenue stream in place of a 99 cent download fee.

Stijn Schuermans, a business analyst with VisionMobile in London, also believes the IoT will require a mind shift among developers.

"My feeling is that most developers in the market are still very much device-focused. But we already see the first examples of companies that 'get it,'" Schuermans said, citing firms like SmartThings, which is connecting the home, or Propeller Health, which is helping manage pulmonary disease. "[They all] have a value proposition that is primarily based on combining data from devices and from other sources, and doing interesting things with that data. They all use hardware as an enabler, but not as the core of their offering."

Creating a central network will be critical as IoT grows

LeHong suggested that as much as the IoT opens up opportunities, it will need some kind of distribution network that will make it easy for consumers to access innovative functions without drowning in download options.

Stijn Schuermans, IoT, VisionMobile

Stijn Schuermans

"If I have 430 things hooked up to the Internet, am I going to have 430 apps? Am I going to have an app for my light fixtures, for my car, for my entertainment system, for my plants, for my lawn mower? Probably not," he said. "If you were Samsung, wouldn't you want to be the app that everything goes through? If you were Apple, wouldn't you want  to do the same?"

There's also the possibility that router companies like Cisco or D-Link will create relationships with manufacturers of physical objects to make it easy to connect them online, and offer their own sorts of app stores, LeHong said.

Moss also believes the Internet of Things could disrupt the way consumers access apps right now. 

"I think the app stores that we see today from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) are about apps on your device," he said. "The kinds of service we're talking about can't run on an app that sits in your smartphone because it's got to be looking at your data all day long, and the data is running through other things. The opportunities for services-oriented app stores are just going to be different."

Consumer app developers may not jump into the IoT today, but the opportunities could emerge quickly. Schuermans, who published a blog post a few months ago about what might attract developers to the IoT, compares it to the smartphone market of a few years ago.

"Back then, smartphone vendors were also primarily focused on business use cases," he said. When iOS and Android enabled developers to release their creativity, however, apps for all possible use cases emerged, including consumer apps and games. "We expect the same thing to happen in IoT. Once developers are given a platform to create and distribute IoT apps, they'll uncover many more applications than are considered, or even conceived of, today."