A look back at key eras of M2M – Setting the stage for IoT and beyond

Joel Young, CTO, Digi International

Today we take it for granted that we can connect machines wirelessly and communicate across vast distances. But we’d be wise to remember that it’s only been about 10 years since the idea of wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) entered the mainstream.M2M has emerged as the driver moving us from the Internet age to the Internet of Things (IoT). Wherever I go, I continually hear the prognostication of 50 billion connected devices online by 2020.

As I look back, there are four semi-distinct eras that stand out most, which mark the changing landscape of M2M. However, it should be noted that each era has lasted an increasingly shorter time period, as the rate of change and innovation has accelerated, says Joel Young, CTO at Digi International

  • Crawling: Tethered connections and Serial Ports (1980s): – It seems ancient now, but not too long ago serial ports were the main way to connect machines, enabling multi-user (or multi-machine) connections that helped spur the proliferation of personal computers enabled by increased processing power. But as companies sought to harness new devices and high-speed data, new approaches emerged.
  • Walking: The era of IP Networks (mid-late 1990s) – By the early 90’s, the Internet had become prevalent as the communications vehicle for connecting people and businesses. It took a little longer, but by the latter half of the decade connecting machines to those same IP networks (device/server architectures) took hold and made it easier to cost-effectively scale and maintain device-networked environments by simply leveraging the existing infrastructure. Although most of the time, devices were connected to networks using serial to IP translators known as serial servers, device servers or terminal servers.
  • Running: The three-legged stool of wireless (mid-2000s) – This is where the evolution of M2M gets exciting – because it’s during these years that wireless networks for devices enter the picture and set the foundation for IoT. Once again, the connecting method (i.e. wireless) had been well established but three new developments took place to marshal in the era of wirelessly connected devices.
  • M2M Wi-Fi (alternative to LANs)– Around 2004 device manufacturers started to see a green field of opportunity in wireless M2M, and a critical mass of new Wi-Fi-enable devices hit the market. Wi-Fi eliminated the need to manage the physical sprawl of wired connections, enabling businesses to create more agile and scalable operations.
  • Cellular M2M goes big at CTIA (alternative to WANs) – Many of us in the industry were experimenting with cellular and there were, of course, non-phone modules available before 2005. But it was at the CTIA conference in 2005 that M2M moved to the main stage as mobile providers and device manufacturers introduced solutions and more cost-effective wireless modules to support new types of industrial and business applications, signaling that “cellular” was no longer just for phones.
  • IEEE 802.15.4 – In 2006, 802.15.4 really came into its own. 802.15.4 (and the ZigBee wireless protocol that followed) addressed the third leg – “disconnected power” sources: battery operated, low power and low cost. This opened the door to a proliferation of wireless sensor networks and other devices that could not previously take advantage of wireless M2M.
  • Flying: The M2M Cloud Takes Hold (2010 – current day) – 2010 was a turning point for M2M with the emergence of new cloud-based solutions for managing devices and the data they generate, opening the door to new levels of device insight, security and scalability for M2M applications.

As I mentioned earlier, it seems the rate of change and technological advancement in M2M and IoT are accelerating. New developments continue to create opportunities for M2M, including 4G LTE rollouts and newer Low-Power Wide-Area Networks. This is actually what gives me a sense of purpose for the future of M2M. If the past is any indicator, it’s hard to imagine all we’ll be able to do. But, I’m looking forward to it.

As some people in the industry may know, this year, Digi International is celebrating its 30th anniversary. As a regular contributor, I appreciate that M2M Now is providing the opportunity to “look back” at what resonates with me as key moments in the industry.

The author of this blog is Joel Young senior vice president of research and development and chief technical officer, Digi International

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