Mobile machine-to-machine (M2M) applications that don't involve human activities such as Web browsing or phone calls are a major focus of this week's Sprint Developer Conference in Santa Clara, California.
M2M represents both a new set of uses for mobile technology and a new source of revenue for mobile operators, and Sprint is aggressively investing in this area, with about 200 employees now dedicated to bringing M2M applications into the world. Third-party developers at the conference showed significant interest, filling all the seats in a session on M2M opportunities with additional people lining the walls.
The new applications can span a wide range of needs, including object tracking, digital signage and medical monitoring. Mobile M2M takes advantage of wireless networks to give devices nearly anywhere a link to data centers and other mobile devices.
Sprint plans to unveil a Web portal platform later this year that will allow enterprises and service providers to easily provision and manage devices in the field, monitor the amount of traffic coming from them and deprovision them when no longer needed. The portal, called Sprint Command Center, is intended as a platform on which third parties can add their own software. It will have a "soft launch" later this year and become generally available in the first half of next year, said Wayne Ward, vice president of Sprint's Emerging Solutions Group.
As the conference opened on Tuesday, Sprint also marked the first day of business at its Collaboration Center, a facility located a few miles up the road in Burlingame where Sprint will work with developers to develop, test and certify their new M2M devices and applications. Thirty partner companies, including silicon and software vendors, are participating already, Sprint said.
Sprint can work with third parties at any stage in the creation of M2M systems, from arranging design and manufacturing of a new device to simply distributing the device and billing on behalf of the developer, Ward said.
AT&T, Verizon Wireless and other U.S. operators are also pursuing M2M opportunities. Sprint is increasing its M2M activity now because developer interest in this field is growing dramatically, Ward told the packed conference session.
"This is a land grab," Ward said.
Sprint and partners showed off or discussed a wide range of possible M2M products at the conference. An armband made by BodyMedia can collect 9,000 types of biometric data from a person's body and send it over the wireless network to a service that helps users monitor health and weight, said Danny Bowman, president of Sprint's Integrated Solutions Group.
An executive from Sprint partner Intel demonstrated a digital sign with an attached camera, which can detect the number, gender and approximate age of the person looking at it and how long they spend looking. The sign could adapt what it displays based on that information, relying on high-speed wireless communication with remote computing resources. Another retail tool, the "Human Kiosk," developed by MediaTile, would combine a remote real-time assistant with traditional advertising or sales functions in a mall kiosk, independent of a wired Internet link.
Though Sprint expects its emerging high-speed WiMax network to play a role in many media-rich M2M applications, such as the "Human Kiosk," not all uses of M2M require high bandwidth, Ward said. Parking meters, cash machines, point-of-sale devices and pet trackers all are examples of systems that can run on Sprint's 2G network, he said. Other systems could even run on the narrowband iDEN network Sprint acquired with Nextel.
However, to deal with the increasing demands on its network from a boom in M2M, Sprint has tools for allocating bandwidth to make sure every use of the network gets adequate capacity, Ward said.
"We've not met a constraint that we've not been able to overcome yet," Ward said.