URLs for Pocket Change

Wired telephone land lines may be on their way to obsolescence, but when you've crawled out of bed early to catch a flight and the caffeine has yet to kick in, punching the buttons on that old land line sure makes it easy to locate a missing smart phone. This morning, as my couch cushions emitted a very familiar cellular ringtone, it struck me that this trick is only in its infancy. It won't be long before you'll be able to communicate with just about anything you own, from lost car keys to that pair of glasses that might have slipped out of your pocket in the cab last week, somewhere between the hotel and the airport.

Small enough to slip in between your couch cushions, a cell phone is already a fairly miraculous example of compact, intelligent wireless technology. It packs a lot of functionality into a very small space. But cell phones are power-hogging elephants compared to what's coming down the pike. Devices are going to keep getting smaller and smarter, and they'll need less and less power to operate. Eventually they'll get to the point where they can operate -- indefinitely -- when they're entirely off the grid. They'll need less energy, they'll stop wasting what they do have, and that will let them get by on whatever juice they can harvest from the surrounding environment.

Here are some of the techniques that they'll use to do it:

Situational Awareness -- Devices will employ parameters like power status, network availability and the status of surrounding nodes to make independent decisions about their own operations. When they don't need to transmit or receive data they'll just hibernate.

Store and Forward -- Rather than remaining in constant communication with the network, devices will collect data, time stamp it, log it, and report the data whenever a network connection becomes available.

Reporting on Exception -- Devices will be instructed to report only when their internal logic tells them that data has gone out of defined boundaries.

Heartbeat Function -- Central controllers need to know if a device is nonfunctional or merely being quiet. Smart devices will be able to ping the master every now and then, just to check in. In between, if there's nothing going on, they'll go to sleep.

None of this is pie in the sky. The University of Michigan has already come out with a low-power, smart sensor system that uses most of these techniques. At just nine cubic millimeters it's smaller than the eraser on your pencil. But it's solar powered, has an internal battery and radio, and is equipped with its own processor. Called the Phoenix, it employs a unique power gating architecture and an extreme sleep mode to achieve ultra-low power consumption. ( You could put a dozen of them on one of the pennies you found hiding in the couch when you were retrieving your cell phone, and there'd be no overlap.

The possibilities for M2M and data networking are staggering. Just imagine what the world will be like when virtually any device, virtually anywhere, can be made a node on a network, and prices have dropped to the point where it makes no sense not to do it. There will be new applications that we haven't even dreamed about yet, and new network topologies to support them. We're at the threshold of an entirely different approach to networking, and B&B Electronics is positioned to be right in the thick of things. (B&B Electronics' embeddable APMG-Q551 module, for example, is already on the market. It network-enables all kinds of devices -- even legacy serial equipment -- and lets them create their own Wi-Fi hotspots. OEMs are doing amazing things with it.) Naturally, as a networking professional I'm pretty excited about it all.

And I predict great things for my personal life as well. It won't be long before I'll be able to ask my car keys if they're hiding under the couch cushions with my cell phone, and whether I've collected enough change down there to buy myself an overpriced cup of airport coffee.

Happy Connections,

Mike Fahrion