M2M: Coming To A Company Near You

Imagine the following scenario: you work for a startup, and your boss puts you in charge of a set of keys to a highly confidential lab. Though you’re diligent 99 percent of the time, the hours are long and no one’s perfect; one unlucky day, you lose them. Panic sets in.

Now, imagine a world where physical keys are made obsolete by smartphones. Thanks to M2M technology, that world might soon become our reality.  

M2M technology powers the much-discussed Internet of Things, allowing objects as varied as cars and refrigerators to communicate. First, a software program collects data and sends it to a network. Once the network routes the data to a program in a different device, it analyzes it and carries out the appropriate actions.

 “More and more devices will begin to become ‘smarter’ with embedded computers, software and network interfaces,” PayPal Senior Manager John Bruno wrote in an e-mail. “These devices will ‘talk’ to each other to optimize our daily living.”

The nontraditional August Smart Lock, for example, is scheduled to come out later this year. It’s currently meant for personal use, but a version for the enterprise is more than feasible. It has two main components. A battery-operated device fits over an existing lock, and a smartphone application acts as a virtual key, communicating with the device using Bluetooth technology. All you would need to do is keep track of your phone—which, more likely than not, comes naturally to you.

The number of devices like the August Smart Lock is projected to grow dramatically. According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index, there were two billion M2M connections in 2012. That number will triple to six billion in 2017. At the same time, yearly global M2M IP traffic will get 20 times bigger. In 2012, M2M traffic made up 0.5 percent of global IP traffic. In 2017, it will make up a full three percent of it. It’s not surprising: from defibrillators to smart vending machines, there’s room for devices that communicate with other devices in almost any industry.  

Still, those are abstract figures. What will that world actually look like, and how should your company prepare to thrive in it?

M2M to enable data collection

M2M technology will enable companies to collect data from many more sources. Thus, the quality of companies’ data could improve—if they get creative and sort through the noise.

For example, M2M technology could benefit marketing departments by enabling advertisements to collect real-time data about potential customers offline. In May, the Financial Times (FT) covered Inwindow Outdoor, a company that makes interactive advertising displays. According to FT, these advertising displays allow people to snap photos, use social networks and even download coupons to their phones.

Imagine how much information you could collect if you had a similarly interactive advertisement, one that sent you data about peoples’ activities as they took place. You could even tailor the advertisement to collect the kind of data your company lacks.

How to prepare for M2M

To take full advantage of the proliferation of M2M technology, companies should “design their systems to allow interconnection to any type of device,” Bruno said. Developers and operators alike can benefit from application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow a myriad of devices to communicate in harmony.

In a survey of over 200 TechRepublic and ZDNet members, 76.5 percent of respondents said their M2M system uses cellular communication. Fortunately, the GSM Association (GSMA) is addressing that section of the M2M world with OneAPI, a global initiative that aims to make the process of creating applications that can access different mobile networks easier.

App makers, take note: the program provides REST APIs and promises to reduce the need to code with multiple interfaces in mind.

M2M security benefits

“Security is a big concern,” Bruno said. “Adoption will suffer if these applications do not foster trust with the consumer.”

“Security and Trust for M2M Communications,” a paper in IEEE Vehicular Technology Magazine, expanded on that very idea. It listed several types of security challenges associated with M2M communication. Among them: brute force attacks on weak authentication algorithms, device impersonation, and eavesdropping for confidential data.

Still, in some ways, M2M technology has the potential to make the enterprise a little safer.

The August Lock provides an obvious case. It allows users to create virtual keys (and set optional expiration dates) for other people, tracking who visits and how long visitors stayed. You could only lose your own virtual key by losing your phone. While that scenario isn’t exactly ideal, it would at least allow you to remove the phone’s access authorization through August.com. A physical key would be out of your hands—both figuratively and literally. Hopefully, your phone has a password that isn’t 1234.

What’s more, the August Lock isn’t easy to hack. The application and the lock communicate without using the Internet, and that communication is protected by a 128-bit AES key, an encryption level also used by some U.S. government departments. A 256-bit AES key is already available; we can expect companies to begin using that option over time.

Making M2M technology secure without compromising the usability of your devices isn’t necessarily easy. Still, it’s worth it—after all, if you’ve lost your customers’ trust, regaining it is infinitely harder.

Take the lead with M2M

Machines that talk to each other used to be the stuff of Disney movies. Today, they’re the stuff of savvy companies. In ZDnet’s survey, only 32 percent of the participants identified M2M technology as a key component of their businesses. In other words, right now is a fantastic time to get started.

Maya Itah is a writer and editor specializing in technology and public policy.

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