The Idealog Guide to Megatrends: Rise of the machines

When Google snapped up Nest recently, more than a few people wondered how it planned to put ads on a thermostat. But the acquisition shows the search giant is thinking pretty hard about the Internet of Things (IoT) and how it can get an edge on it. Smart devices require smart people to think of them first.

The future of mobile is less about devices and apps, and more about connectivity. Of things. Of every thing. The Internet of Things is the tech futurist’s solution, the term used to refer to a coming age of ubiquitous connectivity. It describes a world where everything will be connected by wireless networks and accessed and controlled via mobile devices: homes, appliances, cars, factories, farms, fleets and power grids. That connectivity will enable constant monitoring, control, feedback and improvement on all aspects of business and life. Which is probably the kind of thing people in Terminator said about Skynet seconds before it became self-aware and killed everyone.

On a more positive note, the smart thermostat Nest actually provides a good blueprint for how the Internet of Things will work in practicality. It already allows homeowners to control temperature from smartphones, learns their temperature preference patterns and automatically adjusts for an empty house to lower overall energy usage. In the not-too-distant future, expect smart fridges to send text messages when the milk goes sour; connected cars that monitor driving habits and engine health, tell you exactly what’s wrong and deliver that data back to the auto maker for product improvement; and even smart plant pots that constantly monitor conditions for optimal plant growth. We’ll be using mobile devices not just as on-the-go portals to information, but as on-the-go remote controls to our physical lives.

By 2020, Gartner expects the Internet of Things to encompass 26 billion devices – an almost 30-fold increase from 2009. It forecasts revenue from product and service suppliers to exceed $300 billion, most of that derived from services, resulting in $1.9 trillion total global economic value-add.

But it’s not just the consumer electronics sector that stands to benefit from the Internet of Things. Mhealth and wearables will be facilitated by the technology, too – we’ve discussed that in more depth elsewhere in this issue. Machine-to-machine communication (M2M) is the more technical term given to the Internet of Things, and it’s an area Vodafone has been investing in. The wireless network provider is recognised by research and consulting firm Analysys Mason as a leader in the field. Vodafone head of networks Tony Baird says currently M2M is largely limited to 128-byte bursts of information (about the same size as a text message), so it’s best suited to tech that is either already metered or operates on a simple on-off functionality. It’s enough to enable Coca Cola’s vending machines to send notifications when they’re low on stock. Or in the case of Konica, another Vodafone client, to send out technicians to photocopiers in need of servicing — often before the users themselves know there’s an issue.

But Baird says true potential lies in linking larger systems with M2M communication. Farms could more effectively monitor everything from milk output and quality to effluent ponds and stock location, while transport companies could benefit from consistent – and constant – fleet and asset management. In an Internet of Things world, truck drivers won’t need to spend hours filling out driving logs: their smart trucks will automatically record the data, file the necessary reports, and maybe even pay the road user charges.

The fly in the ointment to all this optimism — and of course there has to be one — is the familiar problem of data security and privacy. In February, an advisory was issued against Belkin for (now resolved) security issues in its smart home products. Read Write reported the issues included insufficient data encryption and insecure software updates, making them vulnerable to remote control and monitoring.

Some brainy kid with too much time on their hands could make life uncomfortable if they hacked a home thermostat, but results could be more menacing if a car or pacemaker was hacked. Even without hackers, do we really trust corporations with our data? With massive amounts of it being transmitted to and from devices, we need to ask who owns that data, how secure is it, and what can it be used for?

The next generation

Current capacity for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication taps out around 128 bytes, or the size of a typical text message. That’s great when all we need from connected devices is a simple call-and-response communication channel: the milk’s past its use-by, or warm the house to 24 degrees. But the desire for richer content and communication will materialise as we demand more from those devices. That means we’ll need a network to handle all that data, which is where 5G comes in.

Fifth-generation wireless networks are still a way off, but they’re already predicted to increase speed and connectivity exponentially over current 4G capacity. South Korea is investing US$1.5 billion in upgrading the technology in time to debut for the 2018 Olympics, which means the country's residents could see an 800MB movie downloaded in as little as a second.

This kind of connectivity isn’t just a nice-to-have luxury, it will be a necessity. By 2018, Cisco predicts worldwide mobile traffic will have increased to 11 times its current rate. It will also fuel development of devices with faster and more powerful computing chops. Like the predicted NTT Docomo instant translation or facial recognition glasses, allowing wearers to translate foreign languages or recognise potential connections in a crowd. By the time 2018 rolls around, there are bound to be thousands more uses. 

Beam’s best

Global spirits supplier Beam is known for its strong brands, innovation and distribution. And now, the New Zealand operation is leading the Beam Group with its mobility solution.

Two years ago the company undertook a project to improve its CRM system for sales staff. Croft wanted something that offered robust security, was quick and easy to use and ensured the sales team would benefit from added efficiency in their day.

As part of the project, the business moved to iPads and iPhones, choosing iOS because of the stability of the platform.

Beam has been using Vodafone’s Secure Device Manager (VSDM) and Content Locker, a mobile content management system, for two years. This allowed Croft to deploy the new Apple devices pre-configured – with the relevant apps and latest software downloaded – in a fraction of the time typically taken for a device swap-out. Beam is able to wipe or lock a device remotely if it’s lost or stolen, in order to protect confidential commercial information.

Since going paperless with Content Locker and moving their product information to smart devices, Beam is confident their pricing and special offers are no longer inadvertently reaching their competitors, something that was all too easy when carrying bulky ring-binders, wads of paper fliers and pricing charts. There have also been significant savings in printing and paper use, and information is updated immediately on the team’s iPads.

The mobility solution allows Beam New Zealand to keep its sales staff on the road, rather than taking breaks throughout the day to handle paper-based admin. Customer notes can be updated immediately and with accuracy, rather than recalling them from memory and saving admin to the end of the day.

Beam recently migrated to new mail servers and were able to use VSDM to seamlessly and remotely shift all the devices to a new server, rather than individuals having to receive instruction on how to manually alter the settings on their devices with self-service. It also allows the IT manager to set up new devices in advance, upgrade devices, and swap loan phones with immediacy, ensuring no-one is left without the tools of the trade.

Beam New Zealand has offices in Auckland and Christchurch. Of their 50 staff, 20 in sales are home based ‘road warriors‘. 

Device IQ

The smart device field is still a fairly limited one, but here are some of the early adopters to keep an eye on.

Samsung smart home app

The South Korean conglomerate has its hands in all things tech, so it’s no surprise it’s recently launched an Android app from which to control compatible smart devices. Currently only available in South Korea and the US, the manufacturer promises the app will eventually allow users to do away with different controls for different devices and replace it with one smartphone app.

Belkin WeMo Switch + motion

Belkin’s WeMo Switch solution lets you turn any old ‘dumb’ appliance into a smart one. Like Flowers For Algernon without all the ethical grey areas. Simply plugging in a lamp or coffee pot to the WeMo Switch allows you to turn it off and on from your phone, and programme If This, Then That (IFTTT) recipes for more functionality. The motion detector obviously adds motion to the equation.

Clevermiles

A partnership with Vodafone in Ireland monitors drivers’ speed, acceleration and braking. The information is relayed back to CleverMiles and good driving is rewarded with lower insurance premiums.