The buzz surrounding current Internet growth is all about Web 2.0 and user-generated content—YouTube videos, MySpace profiles, the blogosphere. It's a fun, consumer-centric party. But the next wave, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, promises a more serious revolution. And there's no better place to see the pieces of the M2M movement coming together than the Embedded Systems Conference, held earlier this month in San Jose.
If Web 2.0 is characterized by "fat" Internet pipes pumping terabytes of video, photos, and music, M2M (a.k.a.Web 3.0?) will take advantage of ubiquitous communications to accommodate billions of connected machines pushing trillions of tiny transactions. Fast communications will be imperative for realtime response from central processing stations.
Consider the life-changing promise for remote healthcare monitoring, smart energy control, industrial maintenance, home and building automation, and personal and even national security (see "The Unblinking Eye,"). And the infrastructure is already in place for M2M. In addition to high-speed networks, Web 3.0 takes advantage of the massive amounts of tagged data posted during the Web 2.0 buildout.
With XML-tagged content, M2M communications can harvest selected data for personalized applications. Why spend time surfing the net when a bot can ferret out the data you might need? For example, traffic and GPS data can link to your PDA-based calendaring program, alerting you to leave earlier for the airport while advising what route you should take. But with all this wireless data swirling around us, we'll need all the security we can get (see "Has Anyone Seen My Data?").
Lantronix is one of the companies enabling the M2M future with its WiPort embedded 802.11b/g wireless device server. I had the honor of being a judge for the company's Wireless Design Contest, with awards presented at the show.
Winners included a Wi-Fi alarm clock that pulls in customized weather, news, and e-mail. It also can be configured to sound the alarm after receiving a specified emergency message. And, the snooze bar lets you toggle between messages, presumably as you procrastinate, determining whether that e-mail is really urgent enough to get you out of bed.
The top prize went to an application that exemplifies M2M's serious potential. The SAND (Smart Adaptable Network Device) is a black-box system that helps truck drivers learn how to drive more fuel-efficiently. It captures real-time truck operation data and calculates "driving competencies." The real-time advice is relayed back to a coach who sits next to the driver and uses a Wi-Fi tablet PC displaying data on throttle, brake, clutch, and additional diagnostics helpful to the driver in training. The system helps drivers decrease fuel consumption by a target of 5% to 7%.
I also met with Allegro Software's president, Robert Van Andel, who has spent more than a decade working on M2M solutions via Allegro's RomPager embedded Web server toolkit. Focusing on the Universal Plug and Play/Digital Living Network Alliance space, Van Andel said his company's software is in devices ranging from the Microsoft Xbox 360 to Cisco IP-based phones and gateways. RomPager can port to all major processors and real-time operating-system platforms.
Van Andel told me about one application that illustrates the potential unleashed when cell-phone communications comes into play in the M2M space. Johnson Controls worked with Allegro to create a solution for an automotive customer that will collect operational data from its cars via a Bluetooth link to the car owner's cell phone. The phone then uplinks to send operational data back to the car manufacturer.
Participating drivers will receive special incentives from the manufacturer and benefit from customized service alerts. The car manufacturer gains real-time, real-world operational data—a boon to creating safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The ability to intelligently monitor and improve our machines, from autos to appliances, takes on greater significance given current concerns about global warming. ESC's keynoter was Al Gore, and he challenged his engineering audience to find new, efficient ways of doing things.
Afterward, Echelon picked up that gauntlet to announce a Green Technology Design Contest, stressing the energy gains of its smart networking technologies. The company says that in commercial buildings, its customers gain energy savings of between 10% and 60%. The "Control Without Limits" contest offers $10,000 in prizes to winners based on green potential and "coolness." Given the context of our times, M2M offers you readers some revolutionary design opportunities.