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Open source near ubiquitous in IoT, report finds

Posted on May 4, 2016

Matt Asay

Contributing Writer

Open source is increasingly standard operating procedure in software, but nowhere is this more true than Internet of Things development. According to a new VisionMobile survey of 3,700 IoT developers, 91% of respondents use open source software in at least one area of their software stack. This is good news for IoT because only open source promises to reduce or eliminate the potential for lock-in imposed by proprietary “standards.”

What’s perhaps most interesting in this affection for open source, however, is that even as enterprise developers have eschewed the politics of open source licensing, IoT developers seem to favor open source because “it’s free as in freedom.”

All open source, all the time

According to VisionMobile’s survey data, IoT developers both use and contribute to open source projects. This isn’t surprising given the wealth of open source options available to IoT developers, whether software, hardware, or data.

As for operaSource: VisionMobileting systems, developers can choose between Raspbian, Ubuntu Core, Google Brillo, Contiki, FreeRTOS, or other open options. For frameworks or libraries developers are also spoiled for choice: Siddhi, bip.io, KinomaJS, RHIOT, Zetta, and Yaler, among many others. In fact, the software options are so rich that 71% of IoT developers expect to use one or more of these options.

As VisionMobile concludes, this high adoption rate suggests that “open source technology is very strong in solving the nitty-gritty, niche challenges that developers have; areas that commercial vendors would struggle to address.”

But it’s not just software.

Indeed, hardware components like Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Flutter, and more capture the fealty of 77% of IoT developers. Beyond software and hardware, by some estimates 41% of developers not only use but also publish open data for IoT.

This open source adoption isn’t mere pragmatism, however, which is somewhat different from enterprise adoption of open source. As VisionMobile finds, “Only 1 in 5 open source [IoT] users is completely pragmatic when it comes to open source decisions (only use open source when it’s the best alternative).”

Let IoT freedom ring

That open source is more than a matter of a $0.00 price tag is clear from contribution levels. A majority – 58% – of IoT developers contribute back in at least one part of the stack. Yes, core contribution rates are somewhat low – 9% to 12% – but this is true of open source, generally. It turns out that it’s very hard to invest the time necessary to build up enough expertise in a particular project to become a core committer.

Source: VisionMobile

Even so, developers remain committed to open source even when they’re not steering IoT projects. A majority – 55% – cite ideology as the key driving factor behind their open source adoption, while a lesser 35% indicate they use it because it’s the best option due to community updates.

This isn’t to suggest that IoT developers are pie-in-the-sky idealists. Thirty-two percent do indicate they like the community support, and it’s telling that the above-mentioned 35% believe open sourcde is better because communities make it so.

VisionMobile highlights:

The popularity of open source communities increases from 49% for IoT developers with less than a year of software experience to 70% for developers with over 6 years’ experience. They are are the second most important source of information for IoT developers, right after vendor documentation. Likewise, the popularity of Q&A sites increases from 39% (no experience) to 58% (6+ years’ experience).

However, there’s a big caveat in all this free-as-in-speech love for open source: hobbyist developers tend to care much more about software freedom, and they still comprise a big chunk of the IoT developer population. A full 64% of the hobbyist crowd is into the freedom ideology of open source, whereas professional developers skew pragmatic.

In other words, while open source will remain a big deal to IoT developers even as the space commercializes, we’re likely to see it embraced more for its quality than for its ideology over time.

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