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May 01, 2007

Economist: the world of wireless connections

Economist_april_28_cover_sml With this post I'll begin to summarize and discuss some of the salient points from the special report on wireless tech entitled "When everything connects" in the April 28 issue of The Economist (online subscription required).

I'll start off with the podcast featuring their technology correspondent, Ken Cukier.

Even though the interviewer begins by talking about the "almost unlimited developed of wireless technology," Ken correctly points out that the wireless tech is not really new, it's just that barriers to implementation and integration such as cost, lack of business processes or services tailored to support all the possible applications are all part of an immature technology ecosystem that I'll discuss below.

However, with the wide acceptance of the mobile phone--"today, almost 3 billion people use a phone...the industry is adding 1.6 million new subscribers each day"--other areas of wireless tech have benefited mostly due to the economies of scale. Now that 1 billion phones are being shipped per year, many resources can now be applied to other areas of wireless tech.

Such applications as machine-to-machine communication, sensor networking, medical wireless monitoring are "absolutely taking off."

The key trend is that as the microprocessor is paired with the wireless radio, the same cost reduction, size reduction and innovation is seen in wireless tech as that seen in the computing industry.

What are the barriers to development at the present?

First, there is no industry to supply these various applications such as using a wireless connection to adjust the lighting in a building. The major business maintenance companies such as GE, Honeywell, Philips are in the process of instituing these services, but are not there yet.

Second, the cost is still prohibitive. A wireless module might cost $4 at scale, but once it's down to 10 cents "it's gonna happen everywhere." The time scale for this is about 5 to 10 years, since these ideas are just entering the planning cycles of these companies.

The benefits not only include saving energy, but there will be new uses that are not even imagined yet. For the general consumer, these new services will required special marketing and demonstrations just to explain them. Consider the difficulty that the cellular carriers and other companies have faced trying to get the message across about all the advanced features available on smart phones such as GPS, mobile search, and even SMS for some.

Consumers are already familiar with wireless communication services for cars such as the OnStar service, but there are plans that go further than this. Wireless monitors can be used to provide predictive maintenance, or preventive medicine when talking about health care, or in the case of the automobile example, even act as black boxes similar to those used on aircraft, to provide information about who is at fault in the case of an accident. This brings up the very important issue of privacy. And this certainly has implications for the healthcare field.

Again, it will take some explaining to the consumer to ask them to pay for map services or some other benefit they've never realized before. It might be offset by advertising, for instance, in providing coupons as you drive through a certain commercial district, but this could be seen as yet another unwanted distraction in a already infomation-glutted world.

What does the future hold?

The thing about the The Next Great Thing is that no one can predict it. Ken uses the analogy of the electric power grid which was originally developed to power light bulbs in everyone's homes. But, it was the availability of the electric socket that was the killer app in providing development of various appliances which are now considered necessities. Another analogy drawn from the past is made about the electric motor, which due to miniaturization and decreasing cost has found its way into many varied and unimagined applications such as the toothbrush.

This ubiquity could be the fate of wireless tech, where you have "the fridge talking to the kettle," but it also will find its way into transformative uses, especially in medicine and health care which I'll explore in future posts. But, it's important first examine the development of wireless tech in the broad context, which is what I wanted to do with this post. Wireless handheld converged devices, some in the form of a phone or a Web tablet, or in some form not even dreamed of yet, while allowing you to monitor your blood glucose, might also be expected to download and view video, provide speech recognition, etc. I guess some time soon, I'll also have to survey battery technology.

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