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Microsoft may have an edge with IoT development

Don't look now, but Microsoft may find itself a winner in the emerging Internet of Things marketplace.

After trade shows, it's easy to be a bit biased toward what vendors are showing off. Brands are on their best behavior and demos always work. Just got back from VMworld? Great, NSX is magic fairy dust, take my money. After sessions at Cisco Live, ACI seems to charm devices with the Force and makes the Internet of Things (IoT) look easy. And sitting in O'Hare on the way back from Microsoft Ignite, I couldn't help but be surprised by the access I had to actual developers and product managers, and especially the Windows 10 embedded team. They even gave away hundreds of Raspberry Pi 2s. And even correcting for post-show vendor glow, I have to admit: Microsoft may steal IoT.

The two-class system dominates IoT development

Much as we like to hold up Nest thermostats as the perfect IoT specimens (and yes, I've written about them), they're not really IoT. They are on the Internet, no doubt, but IoT devices do not cost $199. Endpoints aren't IoT devices if you can buy them for the same price as a computer. Otherwise, Chromebooks, tablets, phones and all of our other beloved gear would qualify. Think of Nest, ecobee and other high-profile gizmos as the 1% of IoT. They live in the same universe, but aren't really part of the world.

Instead, real-world Internet of Things will come in two flavors, differentiated by cost. Tier-one devices will be around $25 or less, or be embedded into more expensive devices whose primary purpose is not being on the Internet. For example, a $400 Internet-connected coffeemaker may be controlled from the Internet, but its primary purpose is -- surprise! -- making coffee.

So, when we think about Internet of Things, what will come to mind are things we can control, things we see and interact with, things we are charmed by. For that, you need UI, and that's where Microsoft may win.

Tier-two IoT gadgets will include things that cost less than $5 and in many ways will be largely invisible. Some examples include luggage tags, "smart" theme park admission tickets, light bulbs, etc. To be clear, they'll be just as legitimately IoT as the tier-one gear, but we won't really talk about them because they'll be disposable. Do we still think USB thumb drives are exciting? No. They might as well be salt shakers.

So, when we think about Internet of Things, what will come to mind are things we can control, things we see and interact with, things we are charmed by. For that, you need UI, and that's where Microsoft may win.

It's all about familiarity for developers

We all love a tweet -- "Typical Microsoft in JerryWorld LOLz!"-- showing a Texas football stadium with a busted, rebooting scoreboard, ideally with a blue screen. As admins, we have a collective chuckle, but that never seems to happen with Linux and Apple. Why? The answer is the vast majority of intelligent devices we've used for 20 years have run on Windows. It's not because it's less expensive for driving signage, ATMs and kiosks. Far from it. They pay for those OS licenses. It's because device hackers love Windows.

I know what you may be thinking. "But Nest and others are Linux!" True, but remember, they are the 1%. NCR engineers picked Windows for ATMs because it's something they knew. They aren't network or software experts. They are armored money dispenser experts. Signage systems engineers are the same. They think about direct sunlight visibility, UX and data source integration. Both pick Windows because it's familiar and offers time-worn libraries that meet the needs of their unique domains.

Now, extrapolate to IoT development scale. Thousands or tens of thousands of small companies are all developing Internet-connected "things." They'll be experts in their fields and they won't be hiring expensive Rails/Java/open-source developers. Their $25 "things" will need familiar networking, a user interface, connectivity libraries, and easy-to-use and interactive debugging tools.

Moreover, even though these gadgets may be inexpensive, they'll still need monitoring and management to assure user experience, track usage, deploy patches, run agents and ensure security. The third-party ecosystem for these tools is well-established for Windows and is well-known by most casual developers. Will they want to roll their own open source with new worries, deserved or not, for their managers? Of course not.

Finally, Windows 10 IoT will likely also remove another barrier -- cost. It's likely to be free. Well-known OS and developer tools, extensive libraries, familiar and rich UI and free? It's going to be mighty attractive to the IoT 99%.

It will be interesting to watch. Will Microsoft become as ubiquitous in IoT as it is in existing non-Internet things? Or will this be Linux's special do-over to get Linux IoT to market in a way Linux Desktop never did. Perhaps installing Windows 10 IoT on my Raspberry Pi and Visual Studio Code on my Mac before Ignite is a choice more than a few developers will take. Or perhaps I'm just still warm with post-show glow. After all, Microsoft was pretty promiscuous with the warm fuzzies.

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