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Is the 'Internet of Things' the way of the future?

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Companies are promising that machine-to-machine, or M2M, technology will deliver all manner of services, from the prosaic to the world-changing. At U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm Inc.'s booth here at the show, there's a coffeepot that can be ordered to start brewing from a tablet computer, or an Internet-connected alarm clock. A former president of Costa Rica is also at the show, talking about how M2M can save massive amounts of greenhouse gases by making energy use more efficient — enough to bring mankind halfway to the goal of halting global warming.

The M2M phenomenon is part of the larger drive to create an "Internet of Things" —a global network that not only links computers, tablets and phones but that connects everything from bikes to washing machines to thermostats. Machina Research, a British firm, believes there will be 12.5 billion "smart" connected devices, excluding phones, PCs and tablets, in the world in 2020, up from 1.3 billion today.

But how does this transformation happen, and who stands to profit?

First, the devices have to be able to connect. That's not a trivial undertaking, especially considering that people don't upgrade washing machines or renovate their homes as often as they change cellphones and PCs. One company at the show, a Los Angeles-based startup named Tethercell, has an ingenious solution for battery-powered devices: a "fake" AA battery that houses a smaller AAA battery in an electronic jacket. It can be placed in a battery compartment with other batteries. Within a distance of 80 feet, some smartphones and tablets can then signal the "battery" to turn the device on or off. For instance, parents whose kids have a lot of noisy toys can turn all of them off with touch of a single button. A fire alarm could send a text-message warning that its battery is running low, rather than blaring an audio signal.

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