The so-called Internet of Things, a world in which everything from farm animals to the pills we swallow and our bathroom mirrors are connected to the Web, has been a long time coming.
So called smart homes, filled with appliances that automatically call repairmen when they start to break down or refrigerators that would automatically order groceries when the milk runs low, have been hyped since the 1990s but most of us are still being put on hold by consumer appliance vendors when the washer is on the fritz and resignedly trudge to the grocery store. That could finally change because the cost and complexity associated with Web-enabling billions of devices is dramatically decreasing.
Cownectivity: The ears of cows in the Pyrenees (like the one pictured here) are pierced and modems inserted so that their whereabouts can be tracked via a dedicated Internet of Things cellular network developed by France’s SIGFOX. The info is transmitted to researchers studying the moving patterns of herds.
A range of wireless services promise to help remove cost and energy-consumption barriers. Some will overlap competitively but analysts interviewed believe they won’t cancel each other out.
The death of near field communications (NFC) — a contactless radio technology that can transmit data between two devices within a few centimeters of each other — is being predicted prematurely, says Mark Hung, a research vice-president specializing in wireless at Gartner, the analyst firm.
While Apple’s snub and Google Wallet’s abandonment of NFC do not bode well for its success in the payment space, the technology has the backing of big industry players, including many of the world’s mobile operators and key device makers. And, history shows that mobile technologies that everyone thinks will be applied in one area end up being used for something else (Hung cites the gyroscope as an example, as it was originally geared towards gaming and ended up being used for indoor location services). NFC could therefore still play a role in other areas as yet unforeseen.
Bluetooth Low Energy
These days Bluetooth Low Energy, a technology that both Apple and PayPal are betting on, is overshadowing NFC. The Washington Post, among others, has hailed the technology as one that "could change the world forever."
While a lot of the buzz has, inevitably, been around Apple, iBeacon is merely Apple's implementation of this much older technology which, like so much of mobile technology, was germinated by Nokia under the name Wibree as long ago as 2006.
BLE 4.0 (4.1 is in the works) is designed specifically for casual, low-power (it is designed to work from a coin cell for up to a year) networks. With its fast handshake, low power, and ability to triangulate a user to locate her to within centimeters, it is ideally suited to shops and other public spaces.
Beacons are small, low-power devices that transmit in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) band, sending out a coded signal that identifies which group of beacons it belongs to (all those belonging to a particular retailer, for example) and then uniquely identifies each beacon (the one in menswear near shirts). If a BLE-enabled phone picks up the signal it will attempt to handshake. For obvious security (and annoyance) reasons, phones only respond to beacons they know about — typically by having the retailer’s app installed. If it is a known beacon then that can trigger a response from the app (a push message — "I see you are in menswear, here is a 10% discount valid for 20 minutes" — for example).
But BLE is designed for one-to-one connectivity and doesn’t do networking well, notes Malik Saadi, ABI Research’s London-based semiconductor practice director. And, while BLE works really well for in-store marketing campaigns, given security concerns with the technology — NFC has security built in and Bluetooth does not — “for payments it is not any better and probably worse than NFC,” says Gartner’s Hung. The business issues for replacing plastic cards with mobile wallets “will not go away,” says Hung, so don’t expect consumers to embrace new technologies for this usage any time soon.
Wi-Fi’s use in the home is expected to become more widespread once a new low-energy flavor is standardized. Martin Varsavsky, CEO and founder of Fon, a start-up that provides a global Wi-Fi sharing service, says he believes it will increasingly be used for home automation. Qualcomm, which recently invested in Fon, agrees with that assessment. Its unit Qualcomm Atheros recently launched a new chip family as part of its portfolio of low-power Wi-Fi solutions that will work with home appliances, consumer electronics, and sensors and smart plugs for home lighting, security and automation systems.
While Qualcomm is spreading its bets, Fon believes that low-energy Wi-Fi will allow that technology to supplant existing ones such as Zigbee (see the story about Fon on page 9).
ABI Research’s Saadi says low-energy Wi-Fi may still be too expensive for some uses, although it is already cannibalizing some of the areas covered by BLE and Zigbee.
Like BLE, Zigbee (the name refers to a dance done by honeybees) operates in the 2.4GHz frequency range as well as in two lower-frequency bands. It offers a throughput of between 250Kbs in the high frequency bands, down to 20Kbs.
It is true that Wi-Fi is already replacing Zigbee in the home, says Hung. For instance Nest, the smart thermostat and smoke-detecting hardware company that recently sold to Google for $3 billion, used to equip thermostats with both Zigbee and Wi-Fi but now only includes Wi-Fi. But Hung predicts that Zigbee will still be considered a cost-effective, efficient solution for wide-area industrial applications.
Emerging WAN Technologies
Zigbee is just one of a number of wide-area wireless technologies set to play a role in the Internet of Things. SIGFOX, a start-up based in Toulouse, France, which raised a $10 million series B round in September led by Intel Capital, has developed patented technology based on Ultra Narrow Band (UNB), which requires 1,000 times fewer antennas than GSM to cover the same area. The network is however only designed for low throughput transmission (between 10 bits per second and 1kbs).
Earlier this month SIGFOX announced that its technology will be deployed nationwide in Spain through a partnership with Abertis Telecom, a Spanish telecommunications infrastructure and media service company operating in the broadcast, satellite and mobile communications markets. SIGFOX has also rolled out networks in France, the Netherlands and Russia.
In January, Neul, a Cambridge, England-based angel- and venture-backed company, unveiled a two-way, wide-area networking solution for the Internet of Things called NeulNET. Based on the Weightless open standard, NeulNET provides coverage, battery life and module cost which it claims offer large improvements over today’s existing mobile carrier-based solutions.
These types of WAN networks could be useful for industrial applications, says ABI Research’s Saadi. “My concern is that if these companies are not acquired by the big guys it will not happen,” he says.
He and other analysts say they believe that all of these technologies will play some role in the Internet of Things. “The interesting thing is going to be how to make all of these technologies work together,” says Saadi. Considering the complexities of knitting it all together, we may all find ourselves on hold with washing machine repairmen for some time to come.