Imagine a future where your digital camera automatically uploads pictures to your own private web folder, your electricity meter checks itself and your car can even call emergency services the second an accident occurs. Sounds like a technological fantasy plucked from the depths of a science fiction film, but it is a reality that is drawing near thanks to moves from the mobile industry.
It is being hailed as a new class of device and service becoming known as the ‘embedded mobile’ market (a term that seems to be interchangeable with ‘machine to machine’, or M2M, which makes it sound even more futuristic, like a Terminator film!). Devices with embedded SIMs, as already seen in the burgeoning embedded laptop sector, are constantly connected to the mobile network, sending information at designated intervals to be stored by the network and used by the customer in a whole range of new ways.
Embedded devices can be used in energy meters (becoming known as ‘smart metering’), digital cameras, e-book readers, game stations, music and video players, and health-related devices for sufferers of chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart conditions. The transport sector can also be tapped into, adding extra emergency contact functions to vehicles, while public transport could utilise television screens with embedded SIMs to display traffic information.
Embedded devices are being hailed as the future of efficiency for both businesses and consumers. Users will be sold on the idea that the security and efficiency of the data transfer will be more guaranteed than other current forms of wireless connectivity, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Bluetooth is limited by range, is easily interfered with and compatibility across devices differs. Wi-Fi also offers limited mobility, with greater flexibility required for health-related devices.
The embedded mobile sector has seen huge backing from the network representative body the GSM Association (GSMA), which launched its ‘Embedded Mobile Initiative’ in November last year to foster network interest and investment, as well as a competition to unearth innovative new applications for embedded devices, the winners of which will be unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February next year. The organisation has engaged O2, T-Mobile, Orange and Vodafone as the initiative’s sponsors.
Meanwhile Vodafone in July opened a dedicated M2M division within its group to provide solutions such as smart metering, and ‘e-Call’ in the automotive industry, which is an alert system for cars involved in accidents, automatically dialing 112 and sending the location of the vehicle to the nearest emergency service.
The European Commission (EC) has even appealed to all EU countries to speed up voluntary implementation of the e-Call technology by public authorities, car companies and the mobile networks. If no significant progress is made in rolling out the system by the end of 2009, the EC could propose regulatory measures to enforce it.
Vodafone has also claimed that M2M technology can help large businesses to reduce their operations’ impact on the environment. The network has even produced a report entitled ‘Carbon Connections’ that calculates that the greenhouse gas emissions savings from a range of M2M-enabled smart systems could be more than 90 million tonnes per year across 25 EU countries by the year 2020.
The GSMA’s senior project director Ton Brand sheds some light on how embedded devices will progressively proliferate consumer and business markets across the world: “We did some market research to look at the potential for the embedded mobile market, and we found that it is predicted to grow to 50 billion devices globally by 2025. This isn’t marginal. This is a very significant market.”
In the UK, energy provider E.ON is looking at rolling out smart metering, which equates to 30 million new connected devices for the mobile network that wins the pitch. Brand reckons that penetration of this market in the UK is “relatively low” and may take up to five years for a full rollout to get underway.
Berg Insight analysts reckon 96.3 million European households will have smart meters by 2014, which will not only increase efficiency for energy providers, but will offer users detailed information about their electricity consumption, giving them more control over their energy costs. Smart meters are already being utilised in Italy and in the Nordic countries, and in Sweden it has in fact been made mandatory from July. Italy is to follow this step, as are Ireland, Norway and Finland, according to Berg Insight senior analyst Tobias Ryberg.
Along with the UK, France and Spain are to introduce smart metering in the coming years, although the Netherlands has postponed its smart meter rollout following concerns that it would lead to privacy violations. Germany also has similar concerns, but Ryberg says these threats are “grossly exaggerated”: “(These groups) are opposed because they represent a new technology for collecting information in a time when large groups of people are afraid of the consequences of living in an information based society. Indeed the energy industry has a major responsibility in protecting the privacy of its customers, but first and foremost it must work to create a sustainable energy system in which smart meters are an essential component.”
The GSMA’s Brand warns however that there are challenges that could hinder the rollout of embedded devices. Managing the onslaught of new connections may prove difficult for networks and would require the development of a new business model to deliver billing and handle subscriptions. For consumers, Brand suggests billing could occur in the same way as it currently does with a laptop and mobile broadband package; with a monthly package payment, or upfront prepay purchase and ongoing monthly data subscription.
The development of standards and guidelines are significant in driving down the cost of each embedded device, which is currently a major factor prohibiting the mass rollout of embedded devices. There is a need for standardisation of form factor, connectivity compatibility (i.e. whether a device connects via 3G or GPRS) and user interface. This is something the GSMA is working on in conjunction with the mobile networks and technology manufacturers.
It is also an emerging market in terms of application development, as developers are currently building things from scratch because operating systems differ radically from that of a typical mobile handset OS. Brand explains: “At the moment one unique design is being made for each module produced, but if we can reduce to five standard designs across the market this would drive prices down significantly and manufacturers will pick up production more.”
Such an advance sounds like it could pave the way for a more time-efficient, greener future; but while corporate users are catching onto the benefits, consumers are yet to welcome this new world. Brand says that in time, such devices will be the norm: “Consumers are kind of unaware that this is where technology is moving, but when they become aware, we expect they will embrace it.”