Aug. 22, 2001 12:00 AM
Will machine-to-machine communications be the Internet technology trend of the 2010s? Does what we see of M2M today constitute the first signs of a technological development that may turn out to be as revolutionary as the PC era and the Internet at the end of the 20th century? Will the new mobile subscribers of tomorrow include toys, bicycles, cars, and all sorts of machines?
The abilities to read an electric meter from a distance, to send a signal to an alarm response center when an airbag deploys, and to know when a ball bearing starts to deteriorate are some of the applications of wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) technology that are a reality today.
On the surface this may appear limited and not as exciting as robots and virtual worlds. The intelligent home still seems to be only a dream. But tomorrow's surfer can become a more powerful player than today's information seeker on the Web. With M2M, humans can have control over technology, direct it, and surf in the world of the machines. That's the vision.
It's difficult to say exactly what M2M is. There's no pure definition. It involves machines "talking to" other machines wirelessly, and then something outside the machine, something in the environment giving rise to a value in a meter or a sensor, a value that's picked up and sent to a central server via wireless, for at least part of the journey.
The computer system and its operators can then take care of the intelligent behavior. This can mean that power is turned on in a summer cottage before you arrive, that a gate is opened or, in the automobile example that comes up frequently in the media, that a car can automatically notify an alarm response center that an airbag has deployed and the driver is asked, "How are you?"
M2M in Japan
M2M consists of digital technology at many stages. It deals with meters and sensors that transmit signals to a computer via radio technology, and with computers sending data to a server via mobile connections or fixed local networks. It can also deal with two-way communications so that, for example, an operator is able to turn a pump on or off.
But M2M is most often based on ordinary mobile telephony, something that the world's biggest mobile operator, Vodaphone, has seized on and already made a separate business area, Europolitan. Vodaphone suspects, as do the Japanese, that this is where the greatest growth in mobile telephony will take place.
It Takes Two to Tango
Other traditional branches of industry can take advantage of investments that have already been made in the development of new technology. The ball-bearing manufacturer, SKF, for example, has long had the technology to diagnose the status of bearings during operation (for example, in the paper industry's giant machines). Now the company is adding wireless technology to the monitoring system and making it even more flexible. The bearing transmits its information via wireless to a receiver somewhere on the factory floor, and the receiver, in turn, passes the information along via the company's local area network.
For certain customers, it could even be possible to take over the job of monitoring. This would involve developing a relationship with the customer - not merely selling products (and possibly spare parts), but also services.
Thus in the commercial arena, we find well-known, highly respected companies that have caught the wave, along with completely new start-ups looking only at the M2M aspect. Among the latter we find DriveIT, for example, working with vehicles to create intelligent carpools that may replace the current rental car system. (In fact, it's in the vehicles and utilities sectors that M2M has taken its first tottering steps. Half of all M2M-oriented companies are working in the smart transportation field.)
M2M Solutions for the
M2M solutions have their own economy, and there are many calculations left to make. For example, if an energy company invests in wireless technology, someone must evaluate what the investment will cost compared to the manual system. Sending out an employee to every meter costs a certain fixed amount per customer. Would the M2M approach be cheaper if it was extended to all of the company's customers? This is the type of question that many businesses must now attempt to answer.
The price of available networks is also going to play a major role. What will happen if communication costs increase with the new generation of mobile networks - GPRS and 3G? Pricing on the new networks can be significant for the future growth of new M2M applications (such as multimedia applications) that require wireless broadband.
But as long as we're dealing with small quantities of data, transmission costs will remain low, and in most cases, the established technology (SMS/GSM) is still fully satisfactory for M2M applications.
"Technical standards are usually a method of reducing costs," says Andreas Wigzell, who studies the connection between the economy and trends in telecommunications. "The user interface is often a Web interface, but technical standards are lacking for the interface with machines. Every player seems to be creating his or her own solution for every case. There are going to be small, simplified Web servers built into a chip like some sort of standard component," he predicts.
In general the M2M business is in expansion mode and there are no dominant players and few generalists. These are the conclusions that Ola Eriksson who studies the structure of the industry at the Strategic Management Institute in Stockholm has reached.
"So far M2M is not a major phenomenon. But the potential is enormous, and M2M is going to grow as soon as the big companies see the possibilities for new services and products," says Eriksson.
The credible players haven't had a chance to position themselves because the infrastructure for M2M is lacking. The traditional mobile networks are not well suited to the new types of services. So new start-up virtual operators - such as Wireless Maingate - with their broad perspective on M2M have a newly created role to fill, more as partners and instigators than as competitors to the established European operators such as Telia and Europolitan.
The companies that succeed in combining access to large quantities of data with an interesting analysis have a future. System integrators will be needed that can help the traditional industries become aware of their slumbering capabilities and discover ever more intelligent systems that can better utilize such things as meter data.
On the engineering side:
On the business side:
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