Hey @matt_ri - thanks for the great question. We get a lot of questions about “How’s Spark different from X?” and rather than focusing on Huzzah and Oak specifically, I’ll try to answer broadly about how we’re different from other products out there. It can be challenging to compare our products to all of the alternatives because there are a lot of alternatives and a wide range of pros and cons, but I’ll try to cover that here. Also keep in mind that it’s particularly difficult to compare to products like Oak that aren’t available yet, and even those products that are available we can only comment on based on our minimal interactions with them, content that they’ve made available online, and what we’ve heard from customers. I’d love to invite others to chime in who have more experience with other products on the market.
Let me start with things that I think are truly unique to Spark compared to anything else out there:
Focus. If you’re trying to create a connected device, I think we’ve got the best platform out there because that’s all we do. What that means is that we’ve got a small range of products and a lot of engineering talent focused on making them better, rather than this being just one product in a wider portfolio. Yes we’ve got the Spark Core and the Photon, and now the Electron, but they’re really all variations on the same theme.
Online development and reprogrammability. There are other folks that have web IDEs (mbed and Codebender come to mind), but as far as I’m aware we’re the only ones who have both a web IDE and a downloadable IDE (Spark Dev) that let you reprogram your device wirelessly. With the Photon, we’ve also made huge improvements to this process so that it’s super fast and extremely reliable, and we expect that once the Photon’s shipping there will be little reason for anyone to reprogram over the wire anymore.
Community. We’ve got the strongest and most vibrant community out there when it comes to creating connected devices. There are larger Maker communities out there - Arduino and Raspberry Pi in particular - but no product with a focus on connectivity has a community like ours. That means that when you need help, we’re here for you, as are lots of other folks on these forums.
Fully integrated. Our hardware, our cloud platform, and all of our development tools are fully integrated, which makes it super fast and easy to get started. There are other integrated platforms out there too (Electric Imp comes to mind), but most of the time you’ve got a handful of tools that require some work to hook up. Besides slowing you down, that also typically means that these tools aren’t 100% designed for one another, so you might run into some compatibility issues depending on what you’re using.
Now, to get more specific in comparison to some of the alternatives that are available out there. For the purposes of this comparison, I’m going to focus on the Photon, because it comes with some major improvements over the Spark Core; in many ways the Spark Core does not compare favorably to some of the other hardware that’s out there now, which makes sense since it’s almost two years old now, and in this industry that means it’s ancient.
The Wi-Fi chipset in the Photon is rock solid and widely regarded as one of the best on the market. The Photon relies on a chip called the BCM43362 from Broadcom. Broadcom makes the majority of Wi-Fi chips in the world, so first off they’ve got the strongest expertise and the best router compatibility (because they make the chips in the routers too). This chip is used in the Nest Protect, Amazon Dash, LIFX, Honeywell’s connected thermostats, Electric Imp, and more. It’s the one that all the real products use. There is one other chip that is threatening its throne: Qualcomm’s QCA4002/4004. The ESP8266 that’s gaining a lot of traction on Sparkfun/Adafruit/Hackaday/Oak/others is really interesting because it’s super cheap and has a large community growing around it. However it comes from a relatively unknown company named Espressif; and while I’ve heard that the situation has improved, it’s had a lot of bugs and quirks. Yes, it’s cheap, and if you’re doing simple projects that don’t need to be super stable or reliable, it’s probably more than adequate. However it’s definitely not best-in-class. Wi-Fi’s 802.11 is a complicated spec, and there are a lot of ways to mess it up; if I were designing a product from scratch today I wouldn’t consider anything except for Broadcom and Qualcomm.
Our cloud platform is different than most other platforms out there. Most of the time if you ask for a ‘cloud platform for IoT’, what you’re getting is a data collection and visualization tool (examples include Xively, Etherios, Adafruit’s Adafruit IO, SparkFun’s Phant, and many many more). At the moment, that’s not what we do; instead we provide secure, real-time, two-way messaging and over-the-air firmware updates. As we build our our new dashboard, we’re focusing on the administrative interface for the devices themselves rather than the data they generate. Yes, we are building some data collection tools, but that’s one small part of our offering, and really we see most other cloud platforms as complements to ours rather than competitors. You can use our cloud platform to easily pipe data from your product into Xively or Phant.
Oak is a special case because Erik, the founder, has replicated our API in his product (his docs are really just our docs). I have an email thread open with him, and I will refrain from commenting too much on it because I honestly haven’t decided whether what he’s doing is a good thing or a bad thing.
@matt_ri, because my response is broader than you were perhaps expecting, I’m going to change your title a bit so this is searchable for people who are looking for comparisons of the Spark platform in general. Thanks again for the question!