Pervasive Neworks

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Within the next few years, literally billions of Internet-enabled microprocessors will provide digital intelligence and connectivity for almost every commercial & industrial product and appliance, extending the Internet into almost every aspect of our lives.

A version of this article was published as
Pervasive Networks by:
Automation World, December 2004

The decades old science fiction vision of "smart things" is finally coming to fruition. Within the next few years, literally billions of Internet-enabled microprocessors will provide digital intelligence and connectivity for almost every commercial and industrial product and appliance, extending the Internet into most aspects of our lives.

During this next era of connectivity – product connectivity – manufacturers and service companies will communicate with their products without any real involvement on the part of the end-user. This will bring significant benefits for suppliers and their customers, and cause a major business inflection point.

Imagine any product or appliance you know being Internet-enabled – your home appliances, your automobile, your office coffee-pot – with all key characteristics and diagnostics available for review and adjustment on-line. Your cell phone is already Internet enabled, and you could use it to check whether your car is secure, your garage door is closed, or your coffee-pot is still on. And you could correct any problems remotely.

Skeptics think that this kind of "gadgetry" has few practical applications (do I really need to talk to my washing-machine?) But, beyond the cute perks for techo-geeks, it's not consumers or end-users that have the most to gain from device networking — it's the manufacturers and service providers.

Internet-connected PCs point the way

Consider what happens today with millions of on-line home and office personal computers. The ever-present dangers of newly developing species of computer viruses and spam make downloading of regular anti-virus updates a necessity – this is often done daily, sometimes several times per day. And the revenue model for successful companies like McAffe or Symantec is largely network centric. By the time you buy their software on conventional media, it’s already out-of-date.

Hundreds of millions of online computers using Windows automatically report errors when they occur. The discovery of continually occurring new software bugs and security holes forces Microsoft to provide regular free updates via downloadable “service packs”. Doing this via physical distribution of software upgrades via conventional media is unthinkable.

What has already become commonplace with connected computers will soon emerge as an important service extension for most industrial (and high-end consumer) products and equipment. Everything will be networked, not just as a cute “feature”, but as an important part of operating characteristics.

Paradigm shift

In the current industrial automation paradigm, the value of equipment typically relates to the equipment itself – competitive operating features, quality, reliability, warranty, service. Sales transactions generate minimal information for the manufacturer – usually nothing more than customer name, date and location of purchase – and not much real, actionable information. Follow-up information is usually left to diligent sales people or logging of service calls from the customer when the equipment fails.

A networked product continues to generate significant information value over its lifespan. Beyond just marketing information, manufacturers can use their connected products to develop new services-based business models, with the potential to drive growth. The manufacturer not only knows where the device is located and when it was installed, but can monitor operating data in the actual environment, including error-codes generated and results of diagnostics. This information can result in tremendous time and cost savings for both the manufacturer and end-user, yielding vastly improved levels of operating reliability and customer service. Beyond that, there are innumerable benefits for marketing efforts and product usage analysis.

From this type of use of the Internet, product and equipment networking will bring totally new portfolios of information tools for managing the vast, ongoing streams of device-generated data. Large opportunities will arise for software companies that provide application suites to crunch the huge volumes of data and extract meaningful and useful business intelligence.

The Pervasive Internet is here

The convergence of smart devices with the Internet is creating a profound shift in the development of the digital revolution – creating a global "digital nervous system." The exponential growth of device networking technology is changing the landscape very quickly. Products and companies that fail to exploit this next wave of the digital revolution will simply obsolete themselves. Huge opportunities will arise from the convergence of device networking, wireless sensors, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, and the Internet.

The eventual goal will be to network devices that are self-sensing, self-controlling, and self-optimizing automatically, without human intervention. This represents totally new applications for information technology and telecom which will totally subsume previous business models.

The availability of real-time, networked equipment data brings totally new meaning to the term “disintermediation”. When a company makes networked product that send real-time information, the company owns access owns access to the product, and a primary link to the customer. Now, no third party can sell profitable services to that customer without access to the diagnostic or status data coming from the networked product. The human link will be bypassed and a new rule will come into force: "The one with the most networked equipment wins."

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA