Emerging devices and the 'Internet of things'

Considering the rate at which so many things are being connected wirelessly to the Internet, it’s becoming easier to imagine how cellular connectivity is expect to signal traffic to and from 50 billion emerging devices within the next decade. Ericsson’s President and CEO Hans Vestberg first mentioned that number to shareholders last year when he outlined the company’s vision and talked about where the next growth opportunities will be for more mobile connectivity. “Today we already see laptops and advanced handsets connected, but in the future everything that will be benefit from being connected will be connected,” Vestberg said.

Intel Corp. most recently projected 15 billion devices by 2015, which is still up markedly from 5 billion today. Regardless, the scale of this emerging device category is profound. The device categories being touched by mobility are as diverse as the companies that drive economic growth today. Wireless companies are making inroads in health care, energy, automotive, finance, real estate, transit, public safety and so much more. Much of the innovation to come in consumer electronics, health care, banking, gaming, home appliances, automobiles, the living room and other areas will be defined by an always-on connection to the Internet. The subsequent competition from startups and incumbents is going to be fierce in this widening space of convergence, as it will eventually define a new set of leaders in each of these industries. In addition to the perhaps more obvious suite of devices that are being manufactured with wireless chipsets inside like laptops and e-readers, there are frankly billions of other devices and terminals that manage so many of the functions that we take for granted. This range of things we don’t see could include everything from standalone utilities to large-scale operations that rely on a vast chain of connected devices. While wireless carriers, chipset manufacturers, tower owners and infrastructure vendors have a lot to be excited about, there is also a growing prospect of greater Wi-Fi adoption. The technology, which distinguishes itself as one that runs on unlicensed spectrum, has been growing steadily and is increasingly seen as a fill-in alternative for certain locations where cellular signals are either too weak or too complex and ineffective due to cost. Carriers jump on M2M bandwagon Carriers around the globe are establishing divisions to pursue machine-to-machine connectivity, but their work is multifaceted. Business models need to be developed and often customized for different use cases and more manufacturers need to commit to actually deploying these capabilities in their products. Glenn Lurie heads up AT&T Mobility’s emerging devices division, where he’s been tasked with focusing on emerging and embedded devices such as tablets, netbooks, laptops and other devices. During its recently closed quarter, the carrier’s emerging devices division added 1.6 million new connections, tallying 4.5 million new connected devices in the past four quarters. The carrier says it now has more than 8.5 million of these devices running on its network and more than 910 specialty devices have been certified by AT&T Mobility for consumer and business use. Sprint Nextel Corp. CEO Dan Hesee recently called the M2M space “the greatest growth opportunity we have in our industry.” Although the industry is just at the tip of the iceberg in the “Internet of things,” roughly half of Sprint Nextel’s wholesale wireless subscribers are M2M today, he said. “It’s going to transform the way some industries, or verticals, do business.” The carrier recently established an M2M collaboration center in Burlingame, Calif., to work with partners and enterprise customers on new use cases for M2M technology. Sprint Nextel has at least 600 engineers working on M2M solutions today. At the end of 2009 there were 87 million embedded mobile M2M connections and the space is expected to reach 428 million installations by 2014, said Danny Bowman, president of Sprint Nextel’s integrated solutions group. By 2013, M2M is expected to be a $1.1 billion business, he added. Healthy potential For Hesse, the most interesting and exciting use case for M2M is in the field of health care and medicine. “Just take a look at IT spending in health care,” he said. “It underspends in IT… M2M will transform that.” There is perhaps no other industry that will achieve results as dramatic as those coming to health care thanks to ubiquitous mobile broadband. With costs continually spiraling out of control, Sprint Nextel’s VP of industry solutions Tim Donahue said “the best opportunity is to take cost out of the health care system.” Equipping doctors and health practitioners with remote functionality to address, diagnose and treat patients with chronic care needs is one clear path to achieve that. “These people do not need to come into the hospital,” Donahue said. “To the extent that we can make this easy,” he said, “we’ll take cost out of the system. It’s better for the patient.” The next generation of input One area that needs drastic improvement in many of these new verticals for mobility is text input. Swype Inc., a text input solution for touch-screen devices, has seen a tremendous uptake on mobile devices. “The keyboard is the most widely used app on a device and every app uses it,” the company’s CEO Mike McSherry said. “It’s closer to an operating system integration than just an application.” Although the bulk of Swype’s commercial releases are in smart phones today, the company has long been building and demonstrating its technology for a variety of screens and other keyboard input mechanisms. “The English world has defaulted to a QWERTY keyboard,” McSherry said. Yet still too many devices have their screen-based keyboard laid out in alphabetical order. “Right now there’s a hodgepodge of different designs for all of those different screens. I would argue that all of those keyboards, for the sanity of users, are going to move to standardization,” McSherry said. Swype has built versions of its platform for tablets, Microsoft Corp.’s Kinect technology for the Xbox 360, in-car navigation systems and has also has some discussion with the military about some new use cases. As for Kinect, McSherry said Swype is already demonstrating use at a speed 10-times greater than users can achieve through the existing interface. But whereas Swype’s partner Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. releases more than 400 mobile devices every year, the development and release cycle for set-top boxes, gaming consoles and the like are much longer. It may take years before most cars and TVs are fully connected to wireless broadband, but McSherry is optimistic. Swype has had greater success on mobile than the company first expected and likewise, he now forecasts Swype will be coming to other devices and platforms much sooner than previously anticipated. Some of those platforms might be more immediate and obvious like tablets, which can already act as the controlling devices for a host of emerging devices. “There’s the thought that the iPad is a glorified coffee table book,” he said, for example. “Maybe that’s an interface to the TV.” In the short term, there is an even larger opportunity in the “backend services connecting all of these devices,” McSherry said. “You’re going to want to take all of those attributes to your other devices and platform.” The promise of a digital living room The living room is another area where companies have been collaborating for years to not only develop and adopt standards for a digitally connected home experience, but also drive adoption. “The digital home has always been portrayed as a thing of the future. However, today’s consumers are already living what should be considered truly digital lifestyles. Enter most homes and you’ll find a TV, a DVR and a DVD or Blu-ray player in the living room as well as another TV in the bedroom,” said Alan Messer, a board member on the Digital Living Network Alliance and senior director of connected consumer technologies and standardization at Samsung. “Each of these products have become the foundation of the fully connected, digital lifestyle; one where the sharing of electronic content between people and products in different locations has become a high priority.” The vision for a digitally connected home is one that enables consumers to “easily enjoy, manage and share photos, video and music across devices, regardless of manufacturer,” he added. Albert Chu, also a member of DLNA and VP of marketing at Access Systems Americas Inc., said the “ideal digitally connected home experience is one where the consumer doesn’t even realize that they’re connected at all, and yet, everything is seamlessly interconnected.” Here’s a classic scenario, according to Chu: “You pull into your garage listening to your Pandora music digitally streamed in your car. You leave your vehicle and walk into the house and the same song that you were listening from Pandora is now playing in your home. As you fix yourself a snack, you browse your iPad and see that ‘Monday Night Football’ is already in progress. You ‘speak’ to the iPad, ‘watch football and read headline news.’ At this time, the Internet-connected TV turns on, plays the football game in progress and streams the latest ‘CNN Headline News’ on the bottom of the screen.” Chu added: “The pinnacle for this vision is that all consumer devices (smart phones, digital TVs, tablets, car/GPS, etc.) are connected – both to the Internet and inter-connected amongst each other – in a seamless way so that it is one continuous consumer experience.” The standards and cross-industry collaborative approach that DLNA is promoting is needed to make sure everything works out of the box with minimal amount of set-up on the part of the user, he said.

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