Almost everyone has a mobile phone (or two) in developed markets, but operators are still signing up more subscribers -- 6 million in five quarters, in AT&T's case. Those new customers are the machines around us, hooked up to the Internet to report on their -- or our -- health. As new connected machines showed off their capabilities at Mobile World Congress this week, industry figures raised an important question: what are our gadgets saying about us?
M2M usually refers to a system where a device wirelessly sends data to a backend system where it can be collected and viewed. One common example is a water meter in a home that regularly and automatically sends data back to the water company for billing and monitoring purposes.
AT&T announced at Mobile World Congress that it is partnering with several companies to offer new features and services for the millions of customers that use its network for M2M services. The partnerships include one with Axeda, which offers an application development platform for industrial, medical, IT, banking, retail and government organizations.
Other AT&T partners include application platform provider ILS Technology; SensorLogic, which offers a service for tracking and monitoring fleets, and Sierra Wireless, which offers a hosted service for collecting and managing data from connected devices.
At the conference, AT&T is showing off some M2M ideas in the Embedded Mobile House exhibition including wirelessly equipped pill bottles, a home security system, eReaders, wireless picture frames, tablets and consoles.
AT&T also said it is growing the footprint of its M2M service to include roaming in more than 200 countries by the second half of 2011.
Sierra Wireless showed off a few commercial M2M projects that it supports. One is a system that collects data from touch screen monitors that NEC has placed in Marks and Spencer and other shops in the U.K. It collects information about which items on the screens shoppers most commonly touch. That data determines which advertisements are displayed on a larger monitor nearby.
The system uses wireless data because many stores don't allow third parties to use their wired Internet connections for security concerns, said Matt Allpress, M2M sales engineer for Sierra Wireless in Europe.
Sierra Wireless also showed off a system that collects data from automobile charging stations in Paris. For now, the wireless connectivity lets Schneider Electric, which makes the charging stations, remotely monitor the health of the charging stations. It can remotely determine the electricity consumption of each station and whether the station needs maintenance.
In addition, the system could be used to allow drivers to find the stations online on a map and reserve one, said Dorine Ruant, marketing and partnerships manager for Sierra's AirVantage Business Unit.
Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs used his time during a keynote roundtable to talk up his company's vision for connected devices, which includes more than just M2M. "What we believe is that everything is going to be connected. We'll have an Internet of things. Around us in the environment there's going to be hundreds or thousands of things that are networked and able to be addressed," he said.
In the home, for example, all sorts of electronics including digital picture frames, stereo speakers, displays, gaming devices and tablets will be wirelessly connected, he said, some of which will send data without human intervention. He referred to a statistic released earlier this year by the Consumer Electronics Association predicting that by 2014, 70 percent of consumer devices will be connected to the Internet.
Because those devices may use different wireless technologies, he envisions that the phone will be a central point for collecting data from the devices and for controlling some of them. "A key vision for the industry going forward is that the phone will sit in the center of that Web of things around you and orchestrate your interactions with things," he said.
He pointed to a few issues with M2M. For instance, if people wear sensors that monitor their health, they may want to only share the data the sensors collect with trusted doctors. However, if someone is in an accident, that person would likely want to allow a paramedic--one who likely has never treated the person before--to access that data. Those are privacy issues that the industry will need to address, he said.