Less is more! A young team in Sweden, Shortcut Labs, are developing a small really useful generic BLE-connected button called flic which you can program to do almost anything with your smartphone. OK? Well, there are three ways to use it: click, double-click and keep pressed. And so what? It’s easily programmable. And what should I use it for? A remote trigger to take photos with your smartphone. Call home from your car with a single click on a button. Turn on Spotify and one of your three favorite playlists on your MC. Tell your family where you are walking if you don’t feel hundred percent safe. Start Siri. And so on.
Companies are investing a lot of money year after year to communicate with their customers and influence their perception of their company and brands. The budgets are there basically to sow for future sales and they remain on the same level year after year measured as a percentage of sales. The ever-increasing challenge is the growing number of channels to be used, and the constantly changing relative importance of them. But the best channel by all means has always been the product itself. Customers who buy it has it and use it often for a long time. People around them might see them using it. Satisfied users as well as dissatisfied users are happy to tell others about their experience.
All of this is well-known facts. But what is less known is that it has become realistically possible to establish a continuous dialogue with the products and also the users of them depending of what product it is, by using modern M2M or Internet of Things technology. Examples of products that often are connected already are: trucks, electrical meters, cars, alarms, vending machines and coffee machines. They are typically connected for operational benefits like being able to tell the truck driver to go to a service facility and depending on where he is propose which one, for electricity companies to measure and report consumption almost in real-time, for vending machines to understand when it’s time to go there to fill it up and better schedule the service route, for coffee machine rental companies to change recipes over the air and for alarm companies to get the alarms automatically. This is all fine and the normal first phase of an M2M investment. Operational value is easy to realize and make ROI investments on thus easier to get project approval and budgets for.
As we all know by now: data is the gold of M2M. And with these things connected we can gather and interpret the data from the connected things and start use it to create strategic value. Examples could be that the owner of the truck could measure how drivers actually drive, provide training to them and become a more sustainable company, the electricity company could offer customers better price off-peak hours, vending machines would get decision support from real data to know what products to have on weekends and warm days in different parts of the country and to use dynamic pricing, coffee machine companies could tune the choice of coffee for different seasons and learn customer’s coffee drinking habits and the alarm companies could add new adjacent services to their alarm infrastructure to become more competitive. All these things are examples of how the collected data could be used to add brand value, competitiveness, customer loyalty, innovation and attractiveness for employees, etc.
We are in the teen-age of M2M aka Internet of Things and many companies have started to connect their things, mainly for operational reasons. But it is still very rare to see companies using the data to create strategic value. Most consumer goods is not connected and if it is, there is no organized use of the data collected. Most professional equipment isn’t connected either and if it is, the data is rarely used in an organized fashion to create strategic value.
But this is about to change and I think we will see a lot of new examples in 2014. A number of new relevant ways of connecting things are available including the power-efficient and very small Bluetooth 4.0 chips with innovative solutions like iBeacon, networks optimized for connecting millions of autonomous things like Sigfox and a host of different ways to associate real life things with an avatar on the Internet like QR-codes, smart cameras, RFID and innovative solutions from companies like Evrythng.
This isn’t about technology. It is only when clever strategists, progressive marketing directors, creative advertising agencies, determined product managers and innovative business developers really understand what is practically and financially possible today that true innovation beyond operational value creation starts to happen. Interesting examples of creative customer communication through products could be the Evian Smart Drop, Volvo’s On Call app enabling their B2B+B2C model and Apple’s recent launch of an iBeacon based service in all 254 Apple Stores in the US.
Services like Skype and Spotify utilizing the Internet just as a connection are often referred to as over the top services or OTT. Consumers normally love them but operators typically have a more complex view of them: great since they create demand for their IP services but not that great if they replace services the operators charge for. Most M2M applications are really tiny in terms of traffic generation which explains why over 95% of the mobile ones still use 2G. For mobile operators M2M is more of a subscription business than a data business today. It is hard to estimate how M2M solutions will impact data volumes since it’s a combination of actual applications and volumes of connected devices.
I always claim that the M2M consumer market is a great place to look for innovation and interesting examples to bring to the business market. One example is what could be referred to as M2M OTT, where vendors of connectable devices use people’s ordinary mobile devices to connect to the Internet and an application in the cloud or elsewhere. This can make the device cheaper and smaller to manufacture and use. By using for example Bluetooth to connect to the phone and leverage the existing subscription and data plan. Data from the device can be made available to an application somewhere typically adding no cost to the user. And no new revenues but more traffic to the operator. There are many examples of this in the consumer market today and the personal health and fitness segment is one worth looking at. A mix of books, trends, research, services and products has created a rapidly growing movement and industry. Dr David B. Agus’ bestseller “the end of Illness” and the sleep monitor Zeo are good examples. The Zeo is a complete system taking sleep analysis out from the labs. By connecting a Zeo headband to an iPhone or Android phone via Bluetooth, the sleep data collected is made available to an app for reporting. But the sleep history data is also made available to the user’s account at mysleep.myzeo.com where analysis, backup and other services are available.
Using the mobile devices for local collection and presentation of data and access, over the top, to an application and services in the cloud is a model we can use in other situations. There are obviously downsides having to deal with Bluetooth, phones running out of power or stolen etc. But for some applications this is a great model maybe also in the business environment. There is simply not one or two models for M2M but many, and it is important to carefully look at all possible approaches available when implementing an M2M project.
The most immediate challenge for the M2M industry is to establish a rich assortment of M2M services enablers in order to make development and maintenance of M2M application more resource and time efficient. M2M Service Enablers will have different features and specialities and they can be deployed in three different ways: on top of operator connectivity services, as in-house solutions or in independent service providers.
But another very interesting area to be addressed is how to connect devices in a local infrastructure in order to enable resource efficient development, maintenance and monitoring as well as a structured way to deal with relevant data. I use to refer to “Local M2M Gateways” and I have started to look for clever ideas and solutions in the market. I am convinced there is room for a whole range of different products optimized for different situations, still providing a quite standardized interface to M2M Services Enablers. In some cases we need to connect locally using only one technology and in other situations we need to support a mix of several technologies. Connecting sensors or things with sophisticated embedded systems put different requirements on the Local M2M Gateways. The choice of WAN-connection, with or without backup, is yet another area where we will need different solutions. And whichever solution we end up using, it has to be cost efficient, easy to deploy and maintain and robust. These will be important tools when helping organizations to design relevant M2M solutions to meet their challenges and opportunities.