The Internet of things and mobile devices

Synopsis

This article was much more complex article to write than I first thought. I would like to acknowledge the help from Dean Bubley , C Enrique Ortiz and Frederic Martinent and Simon Cavill in clarifying the concepts for this article. Here, I discuss the basic ideas and significance of the Internet of things. I discuss the drivers and the inhibitors for the Internet of things especially in the context of it’s integration with Mobile phones.

The ideas presented here are also a part of a forthcoming book called – Beyond Web 2.0: Web 3.0 and the Internet of Things

Introduction

The recent Australian bush fires were tragic. But it also made me think of a technology that could have perhaps predicted or at least alleviated this tragedy. Technologies like Smartdust and RFID (Radio-frequency identification) could play a role in predicting and detecting risks such as fire or other natural tragedies. In doing so, they have the potential to make a significant difference to our lives. Human beings have always sought to influence their environment – be it the course of rivers or the spread of fires. Intelligent objects have the potential to create an environment where technology becomes ubiquitous and seamless. Intelligence i.e. the technology itself, disappears into the background and creates a world that adapts itself to humans through sensors (call it RFID, Smart dust etc). These technologies are collectively called the Internet of things. The Internet of Things links the physical world of goods and items with the virtual World. The technology which is at the forefront of the Internet of Things is RFID

At first glance, the Internet of things sounds like science fiction. Some applications like the ‘Intelligent fridge’ have always been proposed as examples of the Internet of Things. So too have business led ‘big brother’ services such as the ability to detect a person when they walk inside a building so that their PC automatically boots up (saving the employer a minute of two!). Governments have also had their own agendas for technology that can see, hear and sense ubiquitously.

All these developments have been well publicised – but services like the Intelligent fridge, surveillance and business applications of RFID are not the real drivers for widespread adoption of the Internet of things since they do not make a significant impact to the lives of many people. I am a fan of the inventor Dean Kamen – who once said that: I don’t work on a project unless I believe that it will dramatically improve life for a bunch of people.. The operative words being ‘dramatically improve life for a bunch of people’. Therein lies the problem with the Intelligent fridge – it does not really make a Quantum leap in the quality of our lives.

Not so the prevention of forest fires .. Which clearly does as long as the technology becomes feasible and cheap enough to deploy on a mass scale.

Thus, I believe that applications which make a significant difference to the quality of life for many people will be the real drivers for technologies like the Internet of Things. In addition, the current time(a global recession) offers an opportunity for forward thinking governments to lay the foundations of a new infrastructure that will make a difference to citizens and business. Thus, the timing could be right for discussing the Internet of Things.

The technology behind the Internet of things itself is not new. As early as 2005, the ITU had created a very comprehensive report on the Internet of things .

The Internet of Things is based on three key ideas:

• Firstly, device processing and storage power increases exponentially

• Technology becomes smaller and more ubiquitous until technology weaves itself in the very fabric of life. We see the effects of these two trends all around us – with more powerful phones, smaller disk drives etc.

• A third trend driving the Internet of things is the ability of devices to ‘connect and to sense’ i.e. the ability to be intelligent.

The social impact of these three technological trends is the key driver to the Internet of Things.

Beyond Web 2.0 – Web 3.0 and the Internet of things

Web 2.0 taught us the possibilities when people became creators of data. Beyond Web 2.0, the Internet of things – which the EU calls Web 3.0 – shows the potential of new services when devices become creators of content. The management or harnessing that intelligence derived from devices could lead to many new services and possibilities. Again, the idea is not new. In the dotcom era, Sun Microsystems tried the same idea with concepts like Jini (Jini is a network architecture for the construction of distributed systems in the form of modular co-operating services.).

Intelligent devices are significant because if we consider the idea of Web 2.0 – then Web 2.0 applies Metcalfes’s law to connections between people. Internet of things takes Metcalfe’s law to connections between devices(Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2).). In both these cases, the entities being connected are creators of data.

There are other factors that are driving the uptake of the Internet of things / intelligent devices: Security, greater bandwidth, increased international travel and trade, the need for greater security and Cloud computing.

Adoption of Internet of things

What are the drivers for the Internet of things? For simplicity – let us treat Internet of Things as any RFID enabled object. There are four possibilities: Vertical industries (ex Supply chain), Public transportation (ex London Underground), Mobile phones and finally a mass scale efforts from a government or a body (like the EU) to actively promote RFID and similar technologies

To understand these areas, we have to understand four specific technologies

EPC, RFID, NFC and the SIM card

EPC: Electronic product codes Is a global numbering scheme to uniquely identify any object in the world. EPC compliant tags have been used by several RFID rollouts such as from Walmart. EPC is primarily concerned with tracking an object through the Supply chain

RFID Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is an automatic identification method, relying on storing and remotely retrieving data using devices called RFID tags or transponders. There are generally two types of RFID tags: active RFID tags, which contain a battery, and passive RFID tags, which have no battery.

Near Field Communication or NFC, is a short-range high frequency wireless communication technology which enables the exchange of data between devices over about a 10 centimetre (around 4 inches) distance. Payments, ticketing, smart posters to download more information about an object etc are applications of NFC and finally there is the SIM card

The SIM card A Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) on a removable SIM Card securely stores the service-subscriber key (IMSI) used to identify a subscriber on mobile telephony devices (such as computers and mobile phones).

It would be nice if EPC, NFC, RFID and SIM worked together .. But if only life were so simple .. For starters, EPC and NFC use different frequencies.

The paper (pdf) Connecting the Mobile Phone with the Internet of Things – Benefits of EPC and NFC Compatibility Thomas Wiechert Institute of Technology Management University of St. Gallen, Switzerland Florian Michahelles ETH Zurich, Switzerland says

The steps necessary to harmonize EPC and NFC As already shown, the major barriers for accessing the EPCglobal infrastructure by means of NFC-enabled phones are the different frequencies promoted by EPCglobal and NFC. On the one hand, mobile phones could implement the current EPC Gen 2 standard, which would require the integration of UHF readers into mobile phones. At present, commercially available mobile phones with integrated UHF readers do not exist. One reason is managing the part-overlap of UHF RFID with the communication frequency used by mobile phones. Another reason is that NFC phones operating at HF are fully compatible with the established smartcard standards that are currently used for various business applications, whereas a UHF infrastructure for end-consumer application

So, for the moment, RFID (passive tags) and hence Internet of Things initiatives are being driven by specific industry verticals. If a more “open” approach can emerge from this chaos, it can become very big… Hence, the need for governments to take a more active role in future

At the moment, there are different standards being driven by different bodies with varying motivations. For instance, NFC is leaning towards transportation and also to Telecoms. The EPC tags are being standardised by the supply chain folk .. and surprise surpise .. they use different frequencies ..

As early as 2004, ABI research said : Half of Cell Phones Will Be RFID-Enabled by 2009 . Well, it is 2009, and that prediction is wide off the mark.

There are a number of reasons for this:

“RFID” is a broad term but not all RFIDs are created equal. There are number of main standards: For example FeliCa (Sony, Japan) and MIFARE (NXP). The London Oyster card is based on Mifare for example. The NFC forum define support for 4 tag-types that maps to Topaz, MIFARE UltraLight, FeliCa, MIFARE DESFire types of RFID tags. Ultimately, the idea of NFC is to map support for all these existing (and new) RFID tags into one single NFC implementation. For integration into phones, this NFC implementation must also integrate into SIM. And then there is the User interface and we need some form of client side implementation which can access NFC. ForJava, it is JSR-257 (contact-less comm API) and JSR-177 (SATSA API) or the SCWS(Smart Card Web Server) is another possibility

All this inhibits widespread adoption on the Telco side. On the transportation side, there is wider adoption – for example with Oyster card in London and other similar systems. Of course, companies like Walmart use RFID for supply chain. Niche vertical applications are fine but apart from transportation – they don’t affect the public

In addition, there are technical limitations for which phones cannot act as RFID readers for instance many RFID tags are unpowered and so the reader’s signal needs to generate enough inductive current to make them function. This has significant power-management implications if you wanted to build the reader into a handset.

Having said this, there are existing mobile deployments for RFID readers into phones – for instance for FeliCa in Japan

Some additional considerations

• Non phone devices like the Amazon kindle offer some of the most lucrative opportunities for Telecoms network operators. Thus, we could soon see a large scale interest in devices which are not phones(but are connected).

• Services like Twitter are capable of adding intelligence to devices – for instance there are instances of washing machines adapted by people to send a tweet when the washing is done!

• RFID is not the only detection technology being considered. 2D barcodes could be a detection technology as well and it is also getting widespread adoption

• Operating systems like Android from Google could be deployed in devices which are not phones

• Since RFID and other technologies pertain to device detection, I don’t think they will affect the network

Conclusions

Who is driving the Internet of things? At the moment, there are pockets of RFID implementations in supply chain and in transportation. So, we can say that the ubiquitous vision of the Internet of things does not yet exist

However, the recession presents an opportunity for forward thinking governing bodies to invest in infrastructure that can truly create a viable and vibrant ecosystem that benefits both citizens and businesses.

As usual, all comments welcome

Comments

  1. Hi,
    Interesting article – I’m curious to know how you see RFID providing utility, for the forest fire situation you referenced…
    I get the concept of cheap, ubiquitous self (solar?) powered sensors sprinkled around the place, but that doesn’t necessarily connect to RFID as a technology, does it?
    I see RFID type interactions as providing objects with addressable IDs/presence, not large -physical areas requiring sensing for climatic change…

  2. Dave Birch says:

    There’s something missing here though, Ajit. With some kind of identity infrastructure, I can’t see how the technologies can be interconnected in a practical way that is acceptable to the public. How do I know that when my phone reads the tag on your shirt that it is a real tag?

  3. Jason C says:

    “So, we can say that the ubiquitous vision of the Internet of things does not yet exist”
    how about pachube.com?

  4. Tols says:

    Very interesting stuff, I’m currently working on my master thesis about the same subject. But I also have to disagree with “So, we can say that the ubiquitous vision of the Internet of things does not yet exist” Of course it’s not there were we expect the IoT to be, but we’ve already started. See indeed Pachube or BotaniCalls. Babysteps, the first steps before you can take giant leaps.

  5. Are we connected or socially disconnected…I personally believe that technology has reduced our social capital—the relationships that bind people together and create a sense of community. Consequences include decreased civility, loss of behavioural boundaries and increased crime. We must find ways to deal with our profound loss of social connectedness.Even though technological advances have contributed significantly to the problem of isolation, the emphasis on individualism in today’s society has compounded it.

  6. I really like every little bit of the post. Internet of things is one of most beautiful things in mobile!
    Adding something new, you could have talked about visa wave. Very revolutionary and just released at MWC!

  7. Pam Sykes says:

    Nice article, thank you. I do think the exclusive focus on RFID limits your vision, though — putting a GSM SIM in something links it to the global network just as effectively. It’s not just for cellphones!

  8. Really good post! http://tastethecloud.com/series_topics is a link to a series of posts relating to this topic: the Internet of Things as well as the Information Shadow left behind. I thought there was still a problem with the cost of RFID, has it actually become cheaper? Hitachi recently released RFID Powder, very cool and very small.

  9. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Thanks David. See also this post http://opengardensblog.futuretext.com/archives/2010/02/is_twittter_the.html. Thanks for sharing the links kind rgds Ajit