The current growth of the wireless Internet caused by tablets and various other devices is just the tip of the iceberg.
In the coming years, increases in the number of connected devices - many of them attended to by entities without heartbeats - will radically expand demand for bandwidth and the tasks for which the Internet is responsible.
There are a variety of names associated with this trend, which could be defined, without exaggeration, as an impending upheaval. The heart of the big overlapping categories are machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, the "Internet of Things" and smart grid. Working to bring these techniques to fruition are near-field communications (NFC), radio frequency identification (RFID), along with more familiar techniques such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
The bottom line is that it is coming and it will be big.
This week, longtime RFID journalist Mark Roberti wrote that RFIDs may aid M2M. There are thousands, if not millions, of ways that M2M can be used as a monitoring tool. Two examples: creating alarms if the temperature in a refrigerator truck exceeds a preset level or if a pair of pants exits a store without the shopper stopping by the register.
The challenge is that creating armies of such alarmists that are continually sending out the alerts - or the electronic equivalent of "all is clear" - is cumulatively expensive. Alberti suggests that passive devices that only report when asked is the way of the future:
On the other hand, a firm could put passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) transponders inside a container at various levels. Since the liquid would interfere with the ability to read the tags, a company could determine liquid levels by ascertaining which tags can and can not be read. This is potentially a much less expensive solution.
Low cost is the key to ubiquity. Computers and other machines can not see or communicate with the vast majority of objects in the world. Connecting a refrigerator, washing machine or printing press to the Internet allows for M2M communication. But you can't put a Wi-Fi transmitter or a cell phone on every box of Tide detergent, bag of Granny Smith apples or Van Heusen shirt.
Aptly named Machina Research took a look at the amorphous world of M2M in a report released last week. The basic numbers in the press release include a staggering increase in M2M connections - from 100 million to 1.5 billion - between last year and 2020. The release has some details. Concludes company Director Matt Hatton:
... we expect the segment to see very rapid growth over the next 10 years driven by government intervention in the form of legal requirements for smart meter deployment, stimulus packages for smart grid roll-outs and wider installation of electric vehicle charging points.
Axeda Founder Dale Calder, an M2M vendor, picks up the superlatives ("It's crazy big."). He also adds some focus to the M2M nomenclature. M2M, he says, can be any "device, product, phone, computer" and myriad other devices can be included in an M2M connection. The second "M," he said, usually are cloud-based computers. These computers generally relay the data elsewhere.
M2M is like one of those overstuffed dolls that aunts, uncles and grandparents buy for toddlers: big, fuzzy and likely to bring joy to the interested parties. But, unlike toys for the kids, folks dealing with M2M are unlikely to outgrow them.