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Reader Forum: M2M shouldn’t be DIY

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It takes the right combination of hardware, software, networks and services to monitor a loved one with Alzheimer’s, track mobile workers, pinpoint an offender’s whereabouts, maintain visibility of goods in the supply chain or recover a stolen vehicle. Integrating all of those parts and delivering a complete solution is one of the machine-to-machine industry’s biggest challenges – and opportunities.

Today, more than 62 million M2M devices are in use worldwide, and by 2020, there will be 2.1 billion, according to Analysys Mason estimates. Those numbers are impressive to the point that it’s easy to assume M2M must be meeting customer requirements. But, just because companies or consumers are using an M2M device doesn’t mean they’re completely satisfied with the process of configuring it, the services it provides or both.

In fact, although a wide variety of M2M services have been in commercial use for decades, the sector is still an adolescent in its lack of automation, standardization and integration. For example, there’s no single, standard interface to connect to each operator’s management platform. As a result, the service requires extensive custom work to support each operator’s platform, increasing the service’s development costs and time to market. The cost of custom work is particularly problematic because many M2M users are highly price-sensitive. But, customizing an M2M solution for each operator’s technology is unavoidable, especially for M2M companies that rely on operators as their sales channel.

There’s also a daunting selection of technological choices: Which M2M module provides the right combination of coverage, throughput, performance, capital expenditures and operating expenditures? Should the application use cellular, a local-area or near field technology such as Wi-Fi or ZigBee? Is satellite fallback necessary? What kinds of sensors are necessary? What’s the power source? What are the embedded code options? The list goes on and on.

On top of everything, each operator has a stringent certification process to ensure that the M2M device won’t harm its network. But, passing operator certification ensures that the device is only network-ready; it doesn’t ensure that it’s market-ready, too.

Suppose an elder-monitoring system includes motion sensors to monitor activity, or that it can connect to household medical devices such as pulse oximeters. Someone – the adult children, their parents or a third party such as a home health provider – has to be responsible for setting up those connections and ensuring that they’re collecting and reporting information. Consider how M2M devices rarely have an intuitive, smartphone-like user interface, configuring them typically is challenging for laypeople.

Ideally an M2M system would be entirely plug and play across all technology choices. Business applications and end user interfaces would not be so custom and could re-use platform software with 80% of the business logic pre-built. The devices would all be tested and potentially even pre-paired so that all someone has to do is open the box and plug in the power cord. That kind of out-of-the-box experience would significantly reduce costs, such as eliminating the need to pay a third party to set up the system, or staffing up a contact center to walk the adult children or their elderly parents through the configuration process. For the enterprise, plug and play means that the M2M components solve today’s needs and are future-proofed to function years from now – five, 10 or even longer, in the case of applications such as utility meter reading. That’s a market-ready solution.

What’s a “market-ready” solution?

Today, achieving a market-ready solution takes extensive time – and in turn, money. For example, on one recent M2M project, the devices passed operator certification in November, but it took another six months of quality-assurance testing to ensure that the solution was market ready, too.

One reason why delivering a market-ready M2M product takes so much time and effort is because it needs to be an end-to-end solution: devices, software, services and network connectivity. A common pitfall is poor antenna design. In one case, a wearable device met carrier requirements, but failed the Federal Communications Commission’s specific absorption rate test. An experienced M2M solution provider would know that a simple wrist strap would keep it far enough away from the body to pass.

Market-ready also means that the device can change as the market changes. For example, device firmware and software should be upgradeable over the air – a form of future-proofing – instead of requiring an expensive truck roll.

Many other industries – such as IT – have major systems integrators such as Accenture to free the rest of the ecosystem and end users from having to cobble together a solution. They’re notably absent from the M2M industry for the same reason why they’re needed: fragmentation. Systems integrators have the skills to create market-ready solutions, but fragmentation makes that task expensive and time-consuming. As a result, although M2M is a revenue opportunity for them, every project is custom.

That’s why systems integrators will continue to sit on the sidelines, waiting until standardization starts to replace fragmentation, making the work they do for one client repeatable for others – and thus faster and more profitable. In the meantime, the problem of fragmentation remains a major opportunity for other M2M players to fill the void by providing integration.

Put simply, complete is compelling. For M2M to live up to its potential, it has to evolve beyond today’s custom, frequently do-it-yourself implementations, which are expensive and time-consuming. Until the industry achieves that ideal, M2M users such as trucking companies, law enforcement agencies and home health providers should look for a partner that has extensive experience integrating all of the hardware, software, networks and services required for a great M2M solution. Anything less is a recipe for failure.

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