A car that tells your insurance company how you're driving. A bathroom scale that lets you chart your weight on the Web. And a meter that warns your air conditioner when electricity gets more expensive.
Welcome to the next phase of the wireless revolution.
The first wave of wireless was all about getting people to talk to each other on cellphones. The second will be getting things to talk to each other, with no humans in between. So-called machine-to-machine communication is getting a lot of buzz at this year's wireless trade show. Some experts believe these connections will outgrow the traditional phone business in less than a decade.
"I see a whole set of industries, from energy to cars to health to logistics and transportation, being totally redesigned," said Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone Group, in a keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The British cellphone company has vast international interests, including its 45 percent ownership stake in Verizon Wireless.
Companies are promising that machine-to-machine, or M2M, technology will deliver all manner of services, from the prosaic to the world-changing. At U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm's booth here at the show, there's a coffeepot that can be ordered to start brewing from a tablet computer, or an Internet-connected alarm clock.
The M2M phenomenon is part of the larger drive to create an "Internet of Things" — a global network that not only links computers, tablets and phones, but that connects everything from bikes to washing machines to thermostats. Machina Research, a British firm, believes there will be 12.5 billion "smart" connected devices, excluding phones, PCs and tablets, in the world in 2020, up from 1.3 billion today.
But how does this transformation happen, and who stands to profit?
First, the devices have to be able to connect. That's not a trivial undertaking, especially considering that people don't upgrade washing machines or renovate their homes as often as they change cellphones and PCs. One company at the show, a Los Angeles-based startup named Tethercell, has an ingenious solution for battery-powered devices: a "fake" AA battery that houses a smaller AAA battery in an electronic jacket. It can be placed in a battery compartment with other batteries. Within a distance of 80 feet, some smartphones and tablets can then signal the "battery" to turn the device on or off. For instance, parents whose kids have a lot of noisy toys can turn all of them off with a single button. A fire alarm could send a text-message warning that its battery is running low, rather than blaring an audio signal.
Unfortunately, a Tethercell from the first production run costs $35. Co-founder Kellan O'Connor believes the price can come down to $10, but that's still not a trivial cost, and symptomatic of the high price of building out the Internet of Everything. For devices that need to connect at long range over a cellular network, the cost of radio components alone ranges from $10 to $70, according to analyst Dan Shey of ABI Research.
For connections between devices in the home, like that remote-controlled coffeepot, Qualcomm touts its AllJoyn project, which it seeks to make an industry standard. Currently, the main ways for devices to connect to each other and figure out what they can do, like Bluetooth and DLNA, are too limited and difficult to use, said Rob Chandhok, president of Qualcomm Innovation Center.
With AllJoyn, "there's nothing to stop you from making a speaker that listens for notifications and turns them into speech, so you hear, 'Hey, you left the refrigerator door open!' " Chandhok said.