Forecasts of machine-to-machine wireless connectivity envision 50 billion, or even one trillion, wirelessly connected devices, at various times over the next 5-10 years. However, these forecasts date back several years, and there’s a perception in some quarters that all is not well in the M2M world.
These were the words that I used to set the scene for a round-table panel discussion at the beginning of this month, at the Harvey Nash offices in high-rise Heron Tower in the City of London. Participants included senior managers from Accenture Mobility, Atholl Consulting, Beecham Research, Eseye, Interskan, Machina Research, Neul, Oracle, Samsung, Telefonica Digital, U-Blox, Vodafone, and Wyless – all attending in a personal capacity. I had the privilege to chair the discussion.
My goal for the discussion was that participants would leave the meeting with clearer ideas and insights about:
- Obstacles hindering wider adoption of M2M connectivity
- Potential solutions to these obstacles.
The gathering was organised by Ian Gale, Senior Telecoms Consultant of Harvey Nash. The idea for the event arose in part from reflections from a previous industry round-table that I had also chaired, organised by Cambridge Wireless and Accenture. My online notes on that meeting – about the possible future of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) – included the following thoughts about M2M:
MWC showed a lot of promise for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and for connected devices (devices that contain communications functionality but which are not phones). But more remains to be done, for this promise to reach its potential.
The GSMA Connected City gathered together a large number of individual demos, but the demos were mainly separated from each other, without there being a clear overall architecture incorporating them all.
Connected car was perhaps the field showing the greatest progress, but even there, practical questions remain – for example, should the car rely on its own connectivity, or instead rely on connectivity of smartphones brought into the car?
For MWC to retain its relevance, it needs to bring M2M and connected devices further to the forefront…
The opening statements from around the table at Harvey Nash expressed similar views about M2M not yet living up to its expected potential. Several of the participants had written reports and/or proposals about machine-to-machine connectivity as long as 10-12 years ago. It was now time, one panellist suggested, to “move beyond the false starts”.
Not one, but many opportunities
An emerging theme in the discussion was that it distorts perceptions to talk about a single, unified M2M opportunity. Headline figures for envisioned near-future numbers of “connected devices” add to the confusion, since:
- Devices can actually connect in many different ways
- The typical data flow can vary widely, between different industries, and different settings
- Differences in data flow means that the applicable standards and regulations also vary widely
- The appropriate business models vary widely too.
Particular focus on particular industry opportunities is more likely to bring tangible results than a general broad-brush approach to the entire potential space of however many billion devices might become wirelessly connected in the next 3-5 years. One panellist remarked:
Let’s not try to boil the ocean.
And as another participant put it:
A desire for big volume numbers is understandable, but isn’t helpful.
Instead, it would be more helpful to identify different metrics for different M2M opportunities. For example, these metrics would in some cases track credible cost-savings, if various M2M solutions were to be put in place.
To progress the discussion, I asked panellists for their suggestions on compelling use-cases for M2M connectivity. Two of the most interesting answers also happened to be potentially problematic answers:
- There are many opportunities in healthcare, if people’s physiological and medical data can be automatically communicated to monitoring software; savings include freeing up hospital beds, if patients can be reliably monitored in their own homes, as well as proactively detecting early warning signs of impending health issues
- There are also many opportunities in automotive, with electronic systems inside modern cars generating huge amounts of data about performance, which can be monitored to identify latent problems, and to improve the algorithms that run inside on-board processors.
However, the fields of healthcare and automotive are, understandably, both heavily regulated. As appropriate for life-and-death issues, these industries are risk-averse, so progress is slow. These fields are keener to adopt technology systems that have already been well-proven, rather than carrying out bleeding-edge experimentation on their own. Happily, there are other fields which have a lighter regulatory touch:
- Several electronics companies have plans to wirelessly connect all their consumer devices – such as cameras, TVs, printers, fridges, and dishwashers – so that users can be alerted when preventive maintenance should be scheduled, or when applicable software upgrades are available; a related example is that a printer could automatically order a new ink cartridge when ink levels are running low
- Dustbins can be equipped with sensors that notify collection companies when they are full enough to warrant a visit to empty them, avoiding unnecessary travel costs
- Sensors attached to roadway lighting systems can detect approaching vehicles and pedestrians, and can limit the amount of time lights are switched on to the time when there is a person or vehicle in the vicinity
- Gas pipeline companies can install numerous sensors to monitor flow and any potential leakage
- Tracking devices can be added to items of equipment to prevent them becoming lost inside busy buildings (such as hospitals).
It was time to ask the first big question:
What are the obstacles that stand in the way of the realisation of the grander M2M visions?
That question prompted a raft of interesting observations from panellists. Several of the points raised can be illustrated by a comparison with the task of selling smartphones into organisations for use by employees:
- These devices only add business value if several different parts of the “value chain” are in good working order – not only the device itself, but also the mobile network, the business-specific applications, and connectivity for the mobile devices into the back-end data systems used by business processes in the company
- All the different parts of the value chain need to be able to make money out of their role in this new transaction
- To avoid being locked into products from only one supplier, the organisation will wish to see evidence of interoperability with products from different suppliers – in order words, a certain degree of standardisation is needed.
At the same time, there are issues with hardware and network performance:
- Devices might need to be able to operate with minimal maintenance for several years, and with long-lived batteries
- Systems need to be immune from tampering or hacking.
Companies and organisations generally need assurance, before making the investments required to adopt M2M technology, that:
- They have a clear idea of likely ongoing costs – they don’t want to be surprised by needs for additional expenditure, system upgrades, process transformation, repeated re-training of employees, etc
- They have a clear idea of at least minimal financial benefits arising to them.
Especially in a time of uncertain financial climate, companies are reluctant to invest money now with the promise of potential savings being realised at some future date. This results in long, slow sales cycles, in which several layers of management need to be convinced that an investment proposal makes sense. For these reasons, panellists listed the following set of obstacles facing M2M adoption:
- The end-to-end technology story is often too complicated – resulting in what one panellist called “a disconnected value chain”
- Lack of clarity over business model; price points often seem unattractive
- Shortage of unambiguous examples of “quick wins” that can drum up more confidence in solutions
- Lack of agreed standards – made worse by the fact that standardisation processes seem to move so slowly
- Conflicts of interest among the different kinds of company involved in the extended value chain
- Apprehension about potential breaches of security or privacy
- The existing standards are often unsuitable for M2M use cases, having been developed, instead, for voice calls and video connectivity.
My next question turned the discussion to a more positive direction:
Based on your understanding of the obstacles, what initiatives would you recommend, over the next 18-24 months, to accelerate the development of one or more M2M solution?
In light of the earlier observation that M2M brings “not one, but many opportunities”, it’s no surprise that panellists had divergent views on how to proceed and how to prioritise the opportunities. But there were some common thoughts:
- We should expect it to take a long time for complete solutions to be established, but we should be able to plan step-by-step improvements
- Better “evangelisation” is needed – perhaps a new term to replace “M2M”
- There is merit in pooling information and examples that can help people who are writing business cases for adopting M2M solutions in their organisations
- There is particular merit in simplifying the M2M value chain and in accelerating the definition and adoption of fit-for-purpose standards
- Formal standardisation review processes are obliged to seek to accommodate the conflicting needs of large numbers of different perspectives, but de facto standards can sometimes be established, a lot more quickly, by mechanisms that are more pragmatic and more focused.
To expand on some of these points:
- One way to see incremental improvements is by finding new business models that work with existing M2M technologies. Another approach is to change the technology, but without disrupting the existing value chains. The more changes that are attempted at the same time, the harder it is to execute everything successfully
- Rather than expecting large enterprises to lead changes, a lesson can be learned from what has happened with smartphones over the last few years, via the “consumer-led IT”; new devices appealed to individuals as consumers, and were then taken into the workforce to be inserted into business processes. One way for M2M solutions to progress to a point when enterprises would be forced to take them more seriously is if consumers adopt them first for non-work purposes
- One key to consumer and developer experimentation is to make it easier for small groups of people to create their own M2M solutions. For example, an expansion in the reach of Embedded Java could enable wider experimentation. The Arduino open-source electronics prototyping platform can play a role here too, as can the Raspberry Pi
- Weightless.org is an emerging standard in which several of the panellists expressed considerable interest. To quote from the Weightless website:
White space spectrum provides the scope to realise tens of billions of connected devices worldwide overcoming the traditional problems associated with current wireless standards – capacity, cost, power consumption and coverage. The forecasted demand for this connectivity simply cannot be accommodated through existing technologies and this is stifling the potential offered by the machine to machine (M2M) market. In order to reach this potential a new standard is required – and that standard is called Weightless.
Grounds for optimism
As the discussion continued, panellists took the opportunity to highlight areas where they, individually, saw prospects for more rapid progress with M2M solutions:
- The financial transactions industry is one in which margins are still high; these margins should mean that there is greater possibility for creative experimentation with the adoption of new M2M business models, in areas such as reliable automated authentication for mobile payments
- The unsustainability of current transport systems, and pressures for greater adoption of new cars with hybrid or purely electric power systems, both provide opportunities to include M2M technology in so-called “intelligent systems”
- Rapid progress in the adoption of so-called “smart city” technology by cities such as Singapore might provide showcase examples to spur adoption elsewhere in the world, and in new industry areas
- Progress by weightless.org, which addresses particular M2M use cases, might also serve as a catalyst and inspiration for faster progress in other standards processes.
To wind up the formal part of our discussion, I asked panellists if they could share any new thoughts that had occurred to them in the course of the preceding 120 minutes of round-table discussion. Here’s some of what I heard:
- It’s like the early days of the Internet, in which no-one had a really good idea of what would happen next, but where there are clearly plenty of big opportunities ahead
- There is no “one correct answer”
- Systems like Arduino will allow young developers to flex their muscles and, no doubt, make lots of mistakes; but a combination of youthful vigour and industry experience (such as represented by the many “grey hairs” around the table) provide good reason for hope
- We need a better message to evangelise with; “50 billion connected devices” isn’t sufficient
- Progress will result from people carefully assessing the opportunities and then being bold
- Progress in this space will involve some “David” entities taking the courage to square up to some of the “Goliaths” who currently have vested interests in the existing technology systems
- Speeding up time-to-market will require companies to take charge of the entire value chain
- Enabling consumerisation is key
- We have a powerful obligation to make the whole solution stack simpler; that was already clear before today, but the discussion has amply reinforced this conclusion.
A number of forthcoming open industry events are continuing the public discussion of M2M opportunities.
- Cambridge Wireless are holding the Fifth Future of Wireless International Conference on the 1st and 2nd of July; the title is “Everything Will Be Connected (Did you really say 50 billion devices?)”
- The M2M Innovation World Congress is taking place in Nice, France between 24-26 September; the theme of this congress is “Smart services for vertical markets”
- Telecoms Techworld are holding an “M2M World” track in London on 27th November.
With thanks to…
I’d like to close by expressing my thanks to the hosts of the event, Harvey Nash, and to the panellists who took the time to attend the meeting and freely share their views:
- John Roe of Accenture Mobility,
- Rory Murray of Atholl Consulting,
- Robin Duke-Woolley and Jon Howes of Beecham Research,
- Ian Marsden of Eseye,
- Pang Chiang of Interskan,
- Matt Hatton of Machina Research,
- William Webb of Neul,
- Chris Baker of Oracle,
- Vassilis Seferidis of Samsung,
- Niko Louvranos of Telefonica Digital,
- Tony Milbourn of U-Blox,
- Malcolm Glasgow of Vodafone,
- Steve Priestly of Wyless.