Mobile technology beyond the iPhone

Pam Sykes
By Pam Sykes
Johannesburg, 04 Apr 2011

Here's a science-fiction scenario for you: Your friendly local wetland registers as a company and starts sending you bills for its services.

A network of sensors constantly monitors the quality of water inflow and outflow, so the wetland's systems know exactly what kind of crud is coming in, and how much water filtration work needs to happen to create the pristine water that comes out of the aquifer down the road. If you hold a fishing permit, there's an extra charge for fish nursery services. Big polluters get bigger bills.

Not much of this is particularly outlandish, or even new. Canadian writer and futurist Karl Schroeder sketched a scenario very like it during a talk to an O'Reilly Open Source Con in 2009. The only really hard part will be setting up the legal frameworks and getting people to accept their responsibility for paying the bills; almost everything else is already in place.

The concept of ecosystem services is increasingly well-established, with the number of published papers on the subject growing exponentially. As you read this, there are economists and ecologists working on the problem of how to assign prices to things like clean air, climate regulation, crop pollination, soil formation and flood protection - all services that nature has until now provided for free, with classic tragedy-of-the-commons results.

As for the sensor networks, those are already being built. Forget networked fridges and tweeting toasters - sensors aren't yet cheap enough to be deployed en masse in consumer technology.

Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is being pioneered where there is serious money to be made, or saved.

“Traffic lights, water-pumping stations, weather stations, vehicle trackers, assembly lines, ATMs and credit card machines all communicate nowadays,” says Rean van Niekerk, of Metacom, a Cape Town based company whose integrated wireless communications network is being used by companies as diverse as Eskom and Pepkor, from Alberton to Angola.

Building the Internet of things

Eskom, for example, now has sensors spread throughout its distribution network, making line faults much easier to detect and repair. Metacom's wireless infrastructure delivers monitoring information directly into the utility's central systems. Previously, detecting a line fault meant sending a technician into the field.

“It's very much about process efficiency,” says Gabi Strijp, executive head, mobile enterprise product management at Vodacom Business. ”Instead of dispatching people to do a job, you can get machines to do it for you.”

Vending machines are a simple example, she says. “Sending out a technician just to check stock levels is expensive. It's much more effective to send someone only when the sensors report a trigger event, like low stock on a particular item.

“M2M communication has been around for a long time, but it's still in its infancy in terms of its potential,” adds Strijp. “Process efficiency is one key driver. The other is that the cost of the devices is coming down drastically, by about 300% to 400% in the past few years.

“That is really starting to open up the market. Previously, there had to be a very good financial reason to have a device in the field.”

The cost of connectivity has also reduced, she notes. “Older M2M systems used circuit switched communication that was billed by time. Then came SMS, now GPRS, which is much cheaper, especially since the average device only uses about 2MB of data per month.”

Metacom has followed exactly this trajectory, says Van Niekerk, starting with SMS, then GPRS, and now a much wider range of communication technologies. Dropped calls or occasional outages can't be tolerated in a system that is monitoring critical infrastructure, he points out.

“A communications infrastructure for machines needs to provide reliability, security and speed - and it needs to do so as cost-effectively as possible. We use multiple GSM networks, fibre, short-wave radio, satellite - whatever it takes.”

Keeping tabs on you

Apart from infrastructure billing and financial services, the other key driver for M2M communication in SA has been vehicle tracking - another area where there is money to be saved.

“Stolen vehicle recovery is the simplest service we offer, using basic GPS and GSM technology,” says Quinton Pienaar, CIO for Mix Telematics.

“There's also personal safety. If the accelerometer on one of our devices reports an impact, we phone the customer immediately - and if there's no answer, we send an ambulance. GPS location information means we can do that, or send out a roadside assistance team, accurately.”

Built-in accelerometers, combined with information from onboard systems, also enables Mix Telematics to gather drivestyle indicators such as speeding, over-revving and harsh braking, a boon to insurance companies and fleet managers alike.

The company recently implemented a project for a fleet of busses in the UK, to improve efficiencies and reduce their carbon footprint.

“We provided a simple device that gives live visual feedback to the drivers,” says Pienaar. “They can see exactly when they're driving in the most efficient green band. The fleet owner has seen significant benefits in reduced maintenance and fuel costs.”

In another project for the oil and gas industry, Mix Telematics offers a full-journey management service.

“We look at the type of vehicle, the type of driver, the proposed route and the time of day, and then apply a risk algorithm to assess which drivers are rated for which tasks,” says Pienaar. “Once we've allocated a driver to a route, we monitor it and issue an alert if there's any route deviation.”

The underlying wireless infrastructure is the key to making all of this work. In SA, most of this is provided by the cellular companies. In the rest of Africa and in more remote areas, as Metacom's Van Niekerk pointed out, radio and satellite technologies need to be part of the mix.

Managing thousands of devices in the field is another challenge, says Vodacom's Strijp. “The service management and application aggregation layer is crucial,” she says.

“We're rolling out a platform for managing large numbers of SIM cards that will make it much easier for our business customers. It offers full visibility on all SIM cards, including what state they're in, when they last connected, and how much data they're using - and enables customers to change their state or switch them on and off. It's providing a lot more control.”

With the basic platform in place, Strijp and her team are looking at a number of other projects, including several mobile healthcare projects and a geyser-monitoring project that combines energy efficiency with fault detection.

On a mobile near you

M2M may be one of the most interesting growth areas for mobile and wireless business applications in the near future, but there's still plenty happening in the more conventional phone handset space.

“Android is the operating system to watch this year,” says Patrick Lawson, CEO of Mobiflock, which has developed a parental monitoring and control service for mobile phones.

“Symbian app downloads are seeing massive growth, thanks to some recent improvements on the app store and also the fact that despite the hype around Apple and Android, Nokia devices are still prevalent and are still shipping at a furious rate.”

“Instead of dispatching people to do a job, you can get machines to do it for you.”

Gabi Strijp, executive head, mobile enterprise product management, Vodacom Business

Julie Tomlinson, mobile practice director at Sybase SA, agrees on the potential of Android. “While its employment is largely restricted to mobile phones today, it is an open system that has caught the eye of several manufacturers and we know of several local corporates investigating its adoption. An increasing number of business applications are becoming available.”

Tomlinson argues that a platform-based approach to mobility is becoming essential. For IT departments, the task of supporting and integrating a wide variety of applications and access devices will become unmanageable without it.

A platform-based approach, she says, enables companies “to leverage their mobility investments across multiple solutions; create a single integration layer into multiple back-end systems; benefit from consolidated data; apply unified standards and simplified technology support; comply more readily with regulations and legislation; implement, monitor and adhere to quality assurance measures; and finally, select field device types of their choice.”

David Woolnough, MD of Mint Management Technologies, agrees that most organisations start deploying mobile technologies the wrong way around. Instead of first evaluating access devices and front-end applications, they should rather “begin by putting a robust framework in place in the back-office to support their mobility strategy.

“This framework should be open and flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of access devices from a selection of vendors.”

Even MXit, known mostly as a chat service for teenagers, is exploring its potential as a platform, albeit in an entirely different space.

“We are servicing a really low-income market in which people have very little discretionary income,” says Juan du Toit, head of international business development for MXit. “The instant messaging service is at the core of we do, but there's a lot of other content that can be served on the same platform.”

MXit has already ventured into education, working closely with Nokia and the CSIR to develop Dr Maths, a live tutorial tool that links maths learners with volunteer tutors. Linkages with Childline and other organisations have also spawned a range of online counselling services.

“Our users trust technology and will open up on MXit about stuff they can't talk to their parents about, whether it's drugs or HIV/Aids,” says Du Toit.

Other content services include health alerts, general knowledge and spelling quizzes, literacy projects, story and poetry groups, classifieds, music and even games.

“The MXit content universe is large, it's cheap and it's on your phone,” says Du Toit. It's also accessed by a surprising demographic: MXit's own figures show that in SA, 47% of its users are aged between 19 and 25, and another 22% between 26 and 35. Only 24%, by contrast, are aged between 11 and 18, the teenage market most people think MXit dominates.

Mobile banking and commerce are the next steps. “There are still many unbanked people in the world,” says Du Toit. “They all want to be able to transfer money to each other, and to buy goods and services without carrying bags of cash around.”

Then there's social networking. “That's the really big value MXit is offering in the Philippines, where many families have migrant workers in the Middle East. Facebook is too expensive for them, but they can use MXit to keep in touch. We can made social networking cost-effective for the whole world.”

MXit is also developing as a gaming platform, including multiplayer gaming. “We are investing in games for those who can't afford smartphones and colour displays - chess, word games, even adventure games that can be played with text and very simple graphics,” says Du Toit.

The bottom line, as Du Toit points out, is that only 41% of people in Africa have mobile phones.

“An even smaller number have smartphones and fewer still have broadband access. Cost-effective phones will become more accessible, but discretionary income is going to be limited for many years to come.”

There is many a fortune yet to be made at the broad base of the pyramid.