Microsoft chooses open approach for the Internet of Things

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Credit: Luke Jones

The Internet of Things has a big interoperability problem. You'll ultimately want smart devices in your home and on your body to interact and to be controllable from a single interface.

There are countless efforts to solve this problem. With Microsoft's decision to join the AllSeen Alliance, announced this morning, a difference in approach is starting to emerge.

While Microsoft has gone with an open source effort -- albeit one driven by Qualcomm -- Apple and Google have recently laid out their own proprietary routes. The open efforts should deliver better choice and price for end users -- in theory. But looking at history, Apple's strategy has a good shot at delivering the best user experiences, although with limited choice of products.

AllSeen vs Apple and Google

The AllSeen Alliance is a group of companies working on a framework based on the AllJoyn open source code that lets devices interact, even if they use different operating systems and communication protocols. Lots of recognizable names are part of the initiative, including Panasonic, LG, HTC, Qualcomm, and Cisco.

AllSeen is an open source project that lets any members contribute, although it was spearheaded by Qualcomm. Reuters reports that rival chipmakers are expected to launch their own competing initiative soon.

Contrast those consortiums to Apple and Google. Apple recently introduced HomeKit, its own framework that lets Apple developers build apps for controlling connected devices and that lets hardware makers build compatible devices. This is a closed ecosystem, controlled by Apple.

The downside is that it's likely to have fewer hardware developers, if we figure it will follow Apple's historical hardware partner program. The upside is that the apps and devices are likely to work well in concert with Apple products. Apple's tight control over its own ecosystem has historically resulted in products that work well, and work well together.

Google's strategy feels closer to Apple's than to the open alternatives. Google now offers Android Wear, Android Fit, Android Auto, and Android TV. Presumably, all of the platforms will interoperate, so that hardware and software developers can create devices and apps that interact. Because everything's based on Android, some portion of the code used will be oen sourced, although Google has said it intends to exercise tighter control over user interface and other details than it has with Android phones and tablets. Overall, this emerging ecosystem is likely to be less controlling than Apple's but more so than open initiatives, given that Google fully controls the development of the Android platforms.

It's interesting that Microsoft has gone the more open route. It may have realized that it doesn't have enough penetration in important markets like smart phones and that it doesn't have a solid wearables strategy to go it alone, despite having some market share in automobiles, in the living room with Xbox, and in PCs.

However, given some of the other companies in the AllSeen Alliance, it's easy to  imagine that the result will play out like the historical Windows ecosystem. The recognizable names in AllSeen -- Panasonic, Sharp, LG -- are reminiscent of the OEMs from the heyday of Windows, only in consumer electronics rather than PC hardware.

While Microsoft has always had control over the Windows hardware environment, it was relatively open. The result has been excellent choice for users but uncertain results. Who hasn't battled with setting up a printer with a Windows machine or despaired over a headset that mysteriously doesn't work sometimes?

It's very early days for these efforts to connect devices made by a wide array of companies. Many more will start up and many will fail. While I'd like the more open initiatives to win out because they could result in more choice, better prices, and more innovation, my bet is that the more proprietary efforts will win with easier to use products.

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