LogMeIn’s Xively: An Amazon Web Services for the Internet of Things?

A couple of years back, business software company LogMeIn bought a little startup called Pachube. This happens all the time, of course—a public company snapping up a small fry, hoping to bring some scrappier DNA or a promising product into the fold.

But this acquisition, more than many others, seemed to hint at an intriguing future.

Pachube, an early leader in the burgeoning “Internet of things” field, had developed online software that let tinkerers and hackers connect their electronic creations to the Internet.

LogMeIn, best known for its cloud-based remote access software, re-branded the service as Cosm last year, but it was still a “beta” test version. The future remained a little unclear.

Now, we can finally answer the nagging question of just what LogMeIn (NASDAQ: LOGM) wanted with that connected-devices startup. Today, the Boston-based company is unveiling Xively (rhymes with “lively”), another new name for the software service formerly known as Pachube.

And with it, LogMeIn hopes to build out its software business far beyond its current competition with companies like Box, Citrix, and Google for the inboxes and desktops of office workers around the world.

As a subsidiary of LogMeIn, Xively is using its parent company’s underlying cloud infrastructure to offer a connectivity hub for developers who want to build that “Internet of things” by connecting physical objects—temperature sensors, light switches, and much more—to the Internet.

If that sounds like a page out of the much-admired (and constantly cited) playbook for Amazon Web Services, then LogMeIn is starting to get its message across. “We’re going to do the same thing for the Internet of things,” says Chad Jones, a Xively vice president of strategy.

Time will tell if the new effort has the juice to make that lofty vision come into focus. But LogMeIn thinks it has some natural advantages.

It’s all part of a major trend that seems like it’s been on the cusp of happening for many years now. As Clive Thompson wrote in Wired, “Back in the ’90s, big companies built systems to do tricks like this, but they were expensive, hard to use, and vendor-specific. The hype eventually boiled away. The Internet of things turned out to be vaporware.”

That has changed, quite noticeably with some high-profile products aimed at the everyday home. A major one is the Nest thermostat, a slick-looking digital heating and cooling controller produced by some of the folks who cranked out the first iPods. It’s connected to the Web and spits out reports of how much energy is being used in a home, while using machine-learning software to adjust to the patterns of its owners.

Another example is the WeMo system, made by connectivity company Belkin, which allows consumers to link relatively cheap power outlets and motion sensors to Web applications, allowing users to turn on their appliances or lights from a smartphone, for instance.

Both of these items are widely available—Nest thermostats are sold at Lowe’s hardware stores, and WeMo setups are prominently displayed at Best Buy locations. So it’s pretty clear this stuff is moving out of the realm of nerdy hobbyists.

“The possibilities are endless for how the community can design new sensors and the meta apps that connect them in innovative and useful ways,” says Scott Miller, CEO of hardware manufacturing consultancy Dragon Innovation, which counts the the Pebble connected smartwatch among its clients.

That means there’s going to be some intense competition, especially on the typically lucrative software side of the equation. There are bigger players trying to get some communication standards in place, Cisco and IBM among them.

Meanwhile, a group of smaller companies jockeys for position as an online “platform” that handles the Internet-connection layer of programming, making it easier for product developers to bring their creations to life. That’s where Xively is aiming.

“Innovators will take an object, they’ll write an application, and they need infrastructure in between to really make those things communicate and record what they do, Jones says. “A lot of those innovators will kind of hand-wave and say, ‘Ah, I’ll just use the cloud.’”

But that can also mean a lot more custom work, programming software to make all of those connections and ensure that the work is spread out among servers that handle all of the Internet traffic, he says. Simply put, there’s not a clear market leader yet that works as a plug-and-play fix for connected-device creators.

Xively thinks its service has an advantage because of its combination of startup roots and established company guts.

The Pachube system gained a lot of attention when it cropped up, including serving as a connection for people who hacked together a system of real-time Geiger counter information feeds in Japan following the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, LogMeIn had built its business on top of a proprietary online networking system called Gravity Cloud, which already “connects hundreds of millions of devices and supports tens of millions of users in 240 countries,” the company says.

Gravity Cloud has always been used to provide the connections for LogMeIn’s cloud-based office software—its flagship remote computer-access software, along with products like the document-sharing service Cubby and the business communication service Join.me.

“The products all run on this worldwide cloud, run on about a dozen data centers. It’s not on Amazon. It’s ours,” Jones says. ““We’re in direct control of the infrastructure and have been for 10 years. Our downtime is incredibly small. We know how to do this at scale.”

Since it has always specialized in connecting users to remote computers, Jones says, the Gravity Cloud system is well-suited to an Internet of things scenario that links a potentially huge number of miniature computers to the Internet or each other.

On top of rolling out Xively for developers today, LogMeIn also is forming a partnership with ARM, a major manufacturer of processors for mobile devices, to offer a prototyping kit that includes ARM hardware and access to Xively’s service for $130. Xively itself will be based on a “freemium” model for personal use, and will start at $999 for professional accounts aimed toward developers making commercial products.

It’s a very interesting turn for LogMeIn, which has traditionally served a mostly small and medium-sized business customer base with its online software services. As that industry gets more crowded, it’s a bold move for the company to build an entirely new lane for itself.

Xively’s Jones says the most exciting stuff is still to come for connected devices—particularly since nobody quite knows what the next wave of hackers and creators are going to come up with once the hardware, software, and infrastructure are cheap and reliable enough to let new inventions flow.

“It’s out in the collective intelligence out in the world,” he says. “And we’re going to see just the most creative things being built.”

Trending on Xconomy