ARM, IBM Team Up for Plug'n'Play IoT Prototyping

ARM’s new IoT Starter Kit, which I got to preview in London last week, is a newsworthy announcement for two reasons. First, the developer kit serves as a checkpoint for ARM’s upcoming mbed OS, which is a critical piece in the company’s IoT strategy. Second, it involves a close partnership with IBM, whose own IoT vision is also starting to take shape after a series of loosely linked moves over the past couple of years. I thought this might be a good time to take a look at what the launched product tells about both firms on a more strategic level.

A couple of key things about the kit itself:

  • The kit’s development board is one from Freescale’s Freedom portfolio, and it’s worth stressing that it does not run mbed OS but ARM’s older and lower-level code. The OS itself is currently in alpha, and there’s still a long way to go before we’ll see its stable version. By the sound of it, ARM’s Tech Con in November is still a realistic expectation for that.
  • The board is connected to IBM’s Internet of Things Foundation, and via that to the rest of its Bluemix PaaS, where the data can be analysed and fed into applications. Think of IoT Foundation as a Bluemix extension for registering and managing the deployed devices/connections.
  • For connectivity, this edition has only Ethernet as the default option, although there are also sockets for Zigbee and WiFi modules. Future releases are meant to come with integrated wireless modules to enable e.g. Thread, BLE or cellular out of the box.  
  • This is clearly a prototyping kit – designed to offer a plug-and-play environment for IoT developers who want to rapidly test and iterate their concepts. It’s aimed more at enterprise-level developers than, say, hobbyists, but even still I’d be surprised if the current iteration saw much of an adoption in production.


For ARM, this is an important collaboration because the firm needs to drum up the potential of mbed OS before its availability, given that it is by no means the only – or the most convincing – candidate pitching an OS for enterprise-grade IoT development. Canonical is showing a lot of promise with its Snappy Ubuntu Core, which is likely to prove a credible alternative for many of ARM’s traditional partners.

In the meantime, Microsoft and especially Intel appear to be more up to speed on Things than they ever were with mobile devices – while Oracle is investing heavily in making Java a better fit for embedded environments, albeit with rather mixed success. Thingsquare is doing some compelling things with Contiki in smart home, and I'd expect someone to take a punt on the software outside of the consumer space, as well. Overall, I wouldn’t say that ARM is necessarily the one playing catch-up here, but it certainly isn’t the front-runner either.

For IBM, the strategic backdrop is obviously quite different, but the motives behind the partnership aren’t. IBM, too, needs to maximize the developer exposure for Bluemix and IoT Foundation, as it tries to get from a patchwork of IoT solutions to a more horizontal and scalable offering. For what I’ve seen, in terms of capabilities IBM’s offering is pretty similar to what e.g. PTC has in ThingWorx, although when it comes to actually deploying applications I haven’t come across many end-users who would’ve yet considered it for anything business-critical. Still, IBM has some interesting pieces (e.g. Node-RED, Cloudant, Watson) and clearly a commitment to use third-party connectors, or more extensive partnerships, to fill the gaps, so I'd certainly regard it as one to watch.

Or "one of many", rather. IoT application platforms are becoming a crowded market. PTC is arguably the leader, but Intel, Microsoft and (again, to a lesser extent) Oracle all are starting to have comparable platforms, and then there’s of course a growing list of more purpose-built and typically less broadly focused vendors such as 2lemetry, Plat.One, SeeControl, MachineShop, and that can address many of the same pain points. At the same time, GE’s Predix and AT&T’s M2X could surprise many (not least their current partners) over this year, and if you want a real wild card then keep an eye on Salesforce. Amazon, meanwhile, doesn't seem to have a lot going on.

Now that I’ve trespassed well into the rambling territory, let me point you back to the path that should ultimately lead toward more coherent and generally better-articulated insights. Follow that one, over there!