The New Machine in M2M

Why is it that M2M has finally taken off? Some time ago I worked for a company that developed smart gateways that could bridge data traffic between different wireless technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, IR, GPRS (and later also 3G). The devices we sold featured a rather powerful processor, and an open Linux based operating system, making it a perfect tool for innovative entrepreneurs developing M2M applications. This was promising, and this was more than 10 years ago…

When I attended a “M2M for real” seminar in Stockholm the other day, I was overwhelmed by a marathon presentation of various M2M applications that have now successfully been brought to market by Swedish entrepreneurs. There is little doubt that the M2M market has finally taken off and matured into a state where service innovation rather than technology innovation has become the limiting factor to what can be launched and adopted. The small size, high capacity and low cost of available hardware solutions today provides endless possibilities to produce sensors and communication interfaces for any smart M2M application. Obviously things have progressed since “my” time on the M2M scene. It seems to me though that there is one thing that by far has contributed the most to recent innovation within this field. The smartphone.

Among the 10+ success cases presented to me at the “M2M for real” seminar, almost all were in some way revolving around a smartphone device. In some cases the smartphone’s embedded sensors play the role of being the main source of information being fed into the application. An example is Roadroid’s system for measuring the quality of roads using the embedded accelerometer and GPS in the smartphones of e.g. postmen, bus drivers and others to locate bumps and deficiencies in the road network. In other cases the smart phone is essential as a smart communication gateway, like when it is adding a GPS location to the information passed on by a sensor located in a mountain bike helmet, so that a pre-defined recipient can be alerted that the wearer of the helmet seems to have crashed somewhere (or exactly where…) in the woods. Most often it is the possibility to present real-time information to a smartphone user that makes the M2M application valuable at all, as in B3IT’s dynamIQ parking solution that through an app can present a visualization of currently available parking spaces closest to the address you are going to.

As always you can look back and marvel at recent years of steep development, and in this case realize that anything and everything that could be done with the dedicated M2M gateway I was part of developing 10 years ago can be done with any smartphone of today. And the fact that smartphones are now omnipresent in everyone’s pocket has completely changed the game for M2M innovation, removed hardware hurdles and significantly reduced the time to market for any testable idea.

What I find maybe most interesting is the effect this brings upon the traditional M2M telecom perception that an “M2M application equals a SIM card in a dedicated new device”. The smartphones seem to replace a dedicated M2M communication device in a fair amount of commercial applications hitting the market today. In those cases, the operators (once again) are bypassed from both monetization and recognition, at least as long as the end user already have a data plan that swallows the additional M2M traffic passing through the smartphone. Therefore, when projecting M2M growth and market potential it may become relevant to distinguish between smartphone centric applications and dedicated device implementations to understand the impact upon different players in the value chain. But at the end of the day, bypassed or not, value-adding or not, operators, infrastructure suppliers and system integrators alike will benefit from all innovation within the M2M segment as it just furthers the attraction level of – and dependency on – telecom services in general.

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