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18 May 2013

Breakthroughs with M2M: moving beyond the false starts

Filed under: collaboration, Connectivity, Internet of Things, leadership, M2M, standards — David Wood @ 10:06 am

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.

HeronTowerThese 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.

Compelling use-cases

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).

Obstacles

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.

Solutions

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:

  1. 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
  2. Better “evangelisation” is needed – perhaps a new term to replace “M2M”
  3. There is merit in pooling information and examples that can help people who are writing business cases for adopting M2M solutions in their organisations
  4. There is particular merit in simplifying the M2M value chain and in accelerating the definition and adoption of fit-for-purpose standards
  5. 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.

Some take-aways

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.

Next steps

A number of forthcoming open industry events are continuing the public discussion of M2M opportunities.

M2M World

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:

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4 March 2010

Coping with mobile fragmentation

Filed under: applications, developer experience, fragmentation, runtimes, smartphones, standards — David Wood @ 10:21 pm

My recent article “Choosing intermediate mobile platforms” appeared on the same day as the TechCrunch article by Rich Wong, “In Mobile, Fragmentation is Forever. Deal With It“.  Despite the different titles, the articles covered many of the same topics.

Rich and I were fellow jury members at the Emerging Startups Mobile Premier Awards in Barcelona last month.  The discussions of the jury room ought to be kept confidential, but I’m not revealing too many secrets if I say that the topic of de-fragmentation magic bullets came up during our deliberations.  So it’s no coincidence that we both have something to say on the topic!

Even though I’ve written about mobile fragmentation many times in the past, Rich’s article has spurred me to put pen to paper one more time.  Mainly I agree with what he says, though there are a few additional points that deserve to be stressed.

Points of agreement

  • Mobile data is on fire. Despite a few false starts, we are now in the midst of a transformative “Open Mobile 3rd Wave” … We are just in the early swell of the wave … thanks to continued improvements we’re now seeing in smart phones, mobile OS platforms and 3G/4G networks, the raw ingredients are just getting better every month.
  • There is an alphabet soup of protocols, standards, and regional differences by country which can be daunting for any entrepreneur. Just look at the range of technologies on handset platforms alone…
  • Anyone who is waiting for a single silver bullet to solve fragmentation issues in mobile will be waiting a very long time, especially if they want to go after the global mobile opportunity…
  • Sadly, whether or not there is an elegant technical answer, it will be hard to drive any single set of worldwide standards given the different economic incentives of the many players, however good it would be for developers…
  • Get a guide.  It is difficult to explain the subtleties of the mobile ecosystem without a longer dialogue, but the good news is that there are quite a few battle-scarred mobile veterans around that can help you with the Cliff Notes on the industry. Find one to help you.
  • Don’t wait.  There’s an incredible startup and wealth-creating opportunity in this new arena of Open Mobile. The smartest entrepreneurs will not wait for these fragmentation issues to be solved but are figuring out now how to pick a use case, a core platform, and geography to bound their problem and get going. Once you have initial momentum, you can pick through these fragmentation landmines, and make a 2nd and 3rd step. Don’t wait for the unifying technology to solve these issues before diving in. It’s going to be an exciting time to build great mobile companies this next 5-7 years.

Next, let’s extend the discussion:

Some developers can find a magic bullet

It’s true: there won’t, in the foreseeable future, be a single platform that all developers can use to solve all their mobile needs.

However, platforms and tools are appearing which can address all the mobile needs of some developers.  I tried to give some examples of these potential solutions in my previous article.

I’m far from being an expert in any of these systems, so I risk being completely wrong in my assessment.  However, it does appear that at least some of these emerging solutions can remove a significant part of the technical pain from a developer who wants to deploy a particular kind of solution across a wide range of mobile devices.

Depending on the kind of application the developer has in mind, a different intermediate platform may be needed.  So, no single magic bullet.  But there are plenty of smart solutions that deserve a hearing.

Before trying to roll their own mobile solutions, developers should, therefore, take a look at what’s already available.

New intermediate platforms for old phones

Rich makes a good point when he notes,

One of the worst myths floating around the blogosphere is the wait by some for a “unifying technology” that will make things “simpler and easier” to develop services and apps for the global mobile market.  At times, some have claimed that Java (J2ME) was the answer, then Flash Lite, then Webkit browsers, and most recently HTML5. While each solution has its merits, there will not be any unification anytime soon. Even as HTML5 richness has improved substantially, browser support will still vary and many, many phones will not support HTML5 for 7+ years.

In other words, even if new devices contain a powerful new intermediate platform (such as HTML5), this will leave the vast majority of existing phones in the cold.

However, this dynamic can change, to the extent that new platforms can be installed on existing phones.

For example, Qt Labs have recently described a “smart installer” that is now available for beta testing:

Qt 4.6.2 is released, and in addition to all the bug fixes in it, we’ve also snuck in a feature or two, especially for the Symbian platform. One of interest is the ability for Qt to make use of the beta version of the Nokia Smart Installer, which makes it easier to deploy your Qt application to Symbian phones…

When the user now installs yourapp_installer.sis on their phone, the Smart Installer will go on-line and get all the dependencies that your Qt application requires, typically Qt and QtWebkit + Open C. If these packages are already installed on the phone, the Smart Installer does nothing. So, it is a little bit like an “apt-get for Symbian” has been wrapped around your application.

In other words, the Qt environment will be automatically installed onto the phone, if it’s not already present.

The drawbacks with this, of course, include the facts that upgraded new intermediate platforms can:

  • Have heavy hardware requirements – for example, they may use up a considerable portion of the available memory on older phones;
  • Be difficult to install on simpler phones (the above “smart installer” depends on the Symbian software installation system being present on the phone).

However, we can see these points as challenges rather than dead ends.  And it’s handy that there are a considerable number of intermediate platforms under development, adopting different approaches.  It’s reasonable to expect that at least some of these platforms will find ways to reach out successfully to older devices.

An imperative to solve the fragmentation problem

It’s true that developers need to make progress in the existing, heavily fragmented mobile world, without waiting for the fragmentation to be solved.

However, this doesn’t mean the mobile industry should stop worrying about the drawbacks of excess fragmentation.  The effort that people have to put in to bridge different fragments of the mobile world is effort that would be better placed providing direct benefits to users.

  • For example, suppose that a developer puts 40 units of effort into the platform-independent logic of an application, and then another 30 units of effort for each adaptation of the application to a different mobile operating system platform.  To cover six different mobile platforms would require a total of 220 units of effort.
  • Imagine, instead, that the developer could use an intermediate platform that would cover all these operating systems.  Suppose in this case that the adaptation to the single intermediate platform consumes 30 units of effort (on top of the 40 units for the platform-independent logic), and then the developer prefers to add a little polish for each of the different operating systems.  If the intermediate platform is doing its job well, this final polish ought be require something like just 5 units of effort each time.  That makes a total of 100 units of effort.
  • The net saving of 120 units of effort can then be applied to developing v2 of the application, or to some other quite different project, rather than wrestling with different mobile operating systems.

So whilst we advise developers that their approach to fragmentation should be to “Cope with it”, we should be vigorously campaiging at the same time for rapid progress towards meaningful standardisation of fit-for-purpose intermediate platforms.

The problems that need to be solved

I’ll end with some remarks about the main issues that this standardisation process (whether formal or informal) needs to solve:

  1. Performance – especially battery usage.  This includes coping with applications that want to run in background (potentially draining batteries).
  2. Functionality – so that the intermediate platform provides access to the really interesting parts of the functionality of the mobile device and the mobile networks.
  3. Security – to avoid applications wreaking havoc with user data (especially when these applications have accesss to advanced functionality of the device and network).
  4. Device reconfiguration – to cope with the fact that the “one box” design of most smartphones today is going to be replaced by “multi-component” designs over the next 3-7 years, with new roles for detachable screens (and more).
  5. Business models – to ensure that there are enough ways for applications to be economically viable (rather than just technically viable).
  6. Speed of standardisation – so that the big picture of “a rising tide lifts all boats” prevails, rather than the process becoming bogged down in smaller scale turf wars and filibustering.

On the last point, history might just show that the single most significant announcement at Mobile World Congress was about the formation of WAC – the Wholesale Application Community:

A number of the world’s leading telecommunications operators and device manufacturers are launching an open global alliance, that will establish a simple route to market for developers and provide access to the latest and widest range of innovative applications and services to as many customers as possible worldwide.

Together, we have signed a memorandum of understanding with the aim of building an environment or ’wholesale applications community’ where innovative applications can be developed irrespective of device or technology.

The new alliance, which represents more than three billion customers worldwide is inviting players from across the ICT industry, not only operators and developers, but also handset manufacturers and internet players to join forces to create an initiative based on openness and transparency. We believe this model presents the most compelling format on the market where developers will thrive and customers will reap the benefits of greater choice.

The mobile industry doesn’t have a great track record for working together quickly in this way.  However, more people than ever before in the industry are aware of the likely price of failure.

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