At first glance, the idea of "machine to machine" communication seems like a social network for cyborgs. But it's actually a very practical way for devices to exchange data in service to humankind.
I learned a lot about "M2M" last week during a visit to Sprint's M2M Collaboration Center in Burlingame. The facility, which opened in October, is where the company and its partners test out and show off all sorts of devices that are interconnected via the company's cellular data network.
Examples range from ATM machines or vending machines that use the network to validate financial transactions to storage tanks that phone home when they need to be filled or serviced. I saw a bathroom scale and blood pressure monitor from Ideal Life with built-in cellular modems so that they could automatically report data to a health care provider or loved one. There were a couple of electrical smart meters on hand that send usage data back to the utility company and even an electrical charging station from Blink that uploads usage data to a Web page.
In an interview (click to listen), Wayne Ward, vice president of Sprint's Emerging Solutions Group, said that many M2M systems in the business sector are designed to collect information about "the health and welfare of their machine," such as alarm information, statistics, utilization and power consumption. Also, some GPS-enabled devices can report their location, which is not only important for portable assets (like vehicles), but as a security tool for stationary machines to make sure they haven't been moved or stolen.
Ward also mentioned "digital signage" that changes depending on time of day, products being promoted and even who is looking at the screen. The facility has a large high-definition screen with a camera on top that attempts to figure out who is looking at the screen. It doesn't try to recognize you by name, but attempts to record your gender and approximate age. In addition to keeping records, it could also push specific products. I can imagine these at grocery stores analyzing the girth of customers and recommending low calorie foods for some.
Examples of consumer M2M products include gaming devices, tablets, laptops and e-readers. In other words, "anything that is not a phone." Some versions of the Amazon Kindle e-reader use Sprint's network to transfer books from Amazon's servers to the device.
There are also automotive products. Greg Bott of Trimble Navigation said the company has tens of thousands of modules connected to the Sprint network that inform fleet operators in real time about how their vehicles are being operated. I don't know what cellular network it uses, but Inthinc offers a product called Tiwi that helps parents monitor where and how their kids are driving by reporting through a Web portal, email and text messaging. Parents can even set up a "geo-fence" to find out if their child is driving outside of a designated area.
Even though Sprint was the first U.S. carrier to roll out phones with higher speed 4G technology, not all of its systems use its fastest network. There are 4G systems for use with video and other high-bandwidth applications, but there are also 3G and old 2G systems that are much slower than 3G and 4G.
Many M2M applications, said Ward, only send a few bytes of data, so there is no need for high speed communications. Older "2G" systems are not only cheaper to operate but cheaper to make, smaller and more energy efficient. I was shown one 2G data modem that's small enough to imbed in a large wristwatch, which is more than fast enough for systems like alarm monitoring, application control, blood pressure monitors, asset tracking or other applications where only a small of amount of data is being exchanged.
Depending on how you define M2M, the market could eventually be bigger than "P2P" (person to person) because there are more machines in the world than there are people.
Sam Lucero of ABI Research said there were about 22 million M2M connections in the United States in 2010 and 88 million worldwide. By 2015, he projects the market to grow to 90 million domestically and 364 million globally. Lucero, however, is only counting devices with cellular connections that enable "largely automated connections between the remote device and a back-end infrastructure for the purposes of monitoring and control." Other definitions include a much wider range of devices, such as e-readers where the connection and the service plan is embedded in the device and invisible to the user.
Also, there are ways for machines to connect besides cellular, including Wi-Fi, hard-wired Ethernet and even old fashioned telephone modems.
And, of course, there is no reason why machines can't help facilitate human communications. In the future, you'll be able to arrange meetings with friends and colleagues by asking them to "have your machine call my machine."