M2M security is important but more importantly, how do we make money?

That’s the story of last night’s Mobile Monday in London. As with all marketing catchphrases, the panel struggled to properly define machine-to-machine (M2M), with one describing it as more machine-to-network. Accenture’s David Wood (@dw2) presented quite a pragmatic view stating that there are likely to be multiple different eco-systems of machines talking to other machines in specific industries. He pointed out that big incumbents would try to control the technology to the extent that the revenue continues heading their way which is something that would hinder development as it did with Smart Phones in the past. The prediction of a Smart Barbie drew some sniggers in the audience but it does seem that the toy industry are quite on the ball so they will almost definitely exploit this kind of technology.

A long list of applications from healthcare through to construction and industrial controls were brought forward by the presenters with Ericsson’s Tor Bjorn Minde (@ericssonlabs) predicting 50 billion devices by 2020. This is an incredible number but is probably realistic. The number of transducers around far exceeds that now. In my view what we are more likely to see is similar to existing Distributed Control Systems (DCS) which have been in industry for years (I was working with one back in 1996). The transducers are connected back to one host system for the plant in a private network. Looking into this today, I see that industrial control systems already use wireless networks, so we’re already into a healthy M2M world, it just isn’t branded as such by the marketing people. Let’s also not forget that the WiFi connected fridge and vacuum cleaner already exist, they’re just not mainstream yet. It will probably take NFC tags on every product in your fridge to make that a hassle-free, useful product that people want (automatic ordering, recipe creator etc.). I guess that’ll mean a new fridge in every home…

Adrian and Janet Quantock [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Dan Warren from the GSMA (@tmgb) talked about embedded SIM and how to prevent SIM cards being stolen from smart meters and traffic lights. He also raised an important point that “you don’t need to drive test a fridge” – mobility isn’t that important for a lot of M2M applications. William Webb from Neul suggested that using the white space spectrum in the UHF space (which is bigger than the WiFi band) could be an opportunity for low-power devices talking to each other.

Camille Mendler (@cmendler) mentioned that people wanted to know “is it safe?”. There was no real discussion of this but one of the panelists privately told me afterwards that they didn’t want to go anywhere near safety critical software for applications such as automotive. As I’ve previously discussed, there needs to be some real discussion on this in the mobile phone industry as it is a relatively new area for handset manufacturers and operators. Going back to DCS systems, being able to control a valve is co-dependent on the status of other transducers in the system such as flow sensors, hardware interlocks and non-return valves. This is absolutely critical because human error can often cause huge safety issues. In a DRAM fab, you don’t want to open a silane valve if you’ve not purged it with nitrogen first (Silane is pyrophoric and this specific example has killed people in explosions in fabs in the past). Now think about your own home – what would happen if you remotely turned the oven onto full but the gas didn’t light? Consumer goods are certified for safety (e.g. CE marking) but there will need to be new certifications in place for remote control, including that the embedded software is fit for purpose.

The big question on everyone’s lips was “who is going to make money?” and the answer didn’t seem forthcoming. On twitter, there was more talk of Arduino, which I blogged about the other day in relation to Android@Home. After my question about whether Google could be in a position to clean up here, the panel dismissed this a little bit stating that this was what everyone used to say about Microsoft. It may have been that the panel hadn’t seen the announcements at Google I/O but I do see this as a real possibility.

All the panelists mentioned security as being paramount but didn’t elaborate on it with David Wood saying that “security issues will bite us”. I think that hits the nail on the head but the audience nodding in agreement seemed to me like lemmings heading forward towards the cliff “because there’s money to be made!”.

One attendee didn’t like the idea of being tracked around the supermarket and questioned privacy. Again, the concerned faces and “yes that is a challenge” response. “Yes but think about the nectar points!” I hear them cry.

So in summary, I think the really big issues are safety and security and there could be some serious money to be made out of looking at those issues – existing M2M installations are already under attack. A lot of people seem to be glossing over those issues in favour of the money to be made. There’ll be lots of sensors out there reporting to create the ‘internet of things’ that developers crave, but the interesting stuff should and will be firewalled and secured and ultimately heavily tested and regulated.

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