Mon, Mar 03, 2014 - Page 14 News List

Expo highlights promise, peril in Web-linked world


We are in the beginning of a world in which everything is connected to the Internet and with one another, while powerful yet relatively cheap computers analyze all that data for ways to improve lives.

Toothbrushes tell your mirror to remind you to floss. Basketball jerseys detect impending heart failure and call the ambulance for you.

At least that is the vision presented last week at the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona, Spain. The four-day conference highlighted what the tech industry has loosely termed “the Internet of things.”

Some of that wisdom is already available or promised by the end of the year.

Fitness devices from electronics giants Sony Corp and Samsung Inc connect with smartphones to provide digital records of daily lives. French startup Cityzen Sciences has embedded fabric with heart-rate and other sensors to track your physical activities.

Toothbrushes linked to the Internet are coming from Procter and Gamble Co’s Oral-B business and from another French startup, Kolibree. The mirror part is still a prototype, but Oral-B’s smartphone app does tell you to floss.

Carmakers are building in smarter navigation and other hands-free services, while IBM and AT&T are jointly equipping cities with sensors and computers for parking meters, traffic lights and water systems to all communicate.

Internet-connected products represent a growth opportunity for wireless carriers, as the smartphone business slows down in saturated developed markets.

With the technological foundations here, the bigger challenge is getting people, businesses and municipalities to see the potential in the incipient field. Then there are security and privacy concerns — health insurance companies would love access to your health and fitness data to set premiums.

At a more basic level, these systems have to figure out a way to talk the same language. You might buy your phone from Apple Inc, your TV from Sony Corp and your refrigerator from Samsung Electronics Group. It would be awful to get left out because you are not loyal to a single company. Plus, the smartest engineers in computing are not necessarily the best in clothing design and construction.

Expect companies to work together to set standards, in the same way that academic and military researchers created a common language decades ago for disparate computer networks to communicate, forming the Internet. Gadgetmakers are starting to build APIs — interfaces allowing other systems to access and understand their data.

Building everything is too much for a single company, yet “they want all this stuff to work together,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, a backer of the Tizen project for connecting watches, cars and more.

Samsung’s new fitness watches will use Tizen, and tools have been built to talk with Samsung’s Android phones.

As for persuading customers to explore new products, IBM executive Rick Qualman said the emphasis now is on pilot projects to demonstrate the benefits, such as better deployment of equipment and personnel during a natural disaster.

At the Barcelona show last week, Zelitron, a Greek subsidiary of Vodafone Group PLC, showed how retailers can keep track of refrigerators used to dispense bottled drinks. The system tracks temperatures and inventory and knows if a fridge is inadvertently unplugged.

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