Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Will WiFI remote revolution help business?

June 4, 2011

I have never purchased that old warhorse of late-night advertising, The Clapper. It always seemed undignified to me to applaud just to turn lights on or off. But I might have to buy its lineal descendent, a light bulb that can be controlled from a computer through WiFi.

NXP, a Dutch company (www.nxp.com), has announced a new line of semiconductors that are designed to send and receive WiFi signals, similar to those that allow you to log onto the Internet from your favorite coffee shop. Note that there isn’t yet a light bulb or printer that has such a chip in it. That won’t come about until well into 2012. But the idea is intriguing. There’s even a fancy name for it: “domotics,” a kind of portmanteau of “domus” and “informatics.” The product is being pitched as a great way to control devices in the home, but of course my mind strays inevitably to its applications in business. After all, a lot of us work from home.

To be sure, the concept of remote control is far from new. Years ago, there was a piece of hardware that connected to a port on the computer, equipped with a plug-strip that could turn anything on or off according to commands through the port. But it was basically intended for engineers, not businessfolk, and it required physical wiring. The very first general-purpose remote-control scheme was the X10 protocol, devised by Pico Electronics in 1970. It is still widely used. X10 has a wireless protocol, but even today most X10 devices rely on bursts of radio frequency sent over the building’s electrical power cables.

Other schemes have sprung up that worked with radio instead of copper wiring. There is the Z-Wave Alliance (www.z-wavealliance.org), for example, which sounds a bit James Bond-ish, but is merely a group that’s defined a protocol called “Z-Wave” for controlling things using radio frequencies. In fact, Z-Wave is designed expressly for the purpose of remote control and monitoring, unlike NXP’s WiFi, but it suffers from relatively high cost and technical problems, besides being proprietary, which prevents widespread tinkering with it.

WiFi, by contrast, is an open protocol, so anybody who wants to play in the WiFi sandbox can do so. Google is already staking out its sandbox territory by writing Google @Home, an ambitious attempt to make Android, the Google smartphone and tablet operating system, into a one-place home remote-control station. Google @Home is also open, giving developers free rein to write applications for it. This has the potential to take WiFi control far beyond turning light bulbs on or off.

The effect on business is likely to be low-key, but significant in the long run if manufacturers go beyond home applications. Small business is forever trying to do more with less, and I can see the move toward remote control meaning more than monitoring refrigerator temperatures and turning the stereo down. Low-cost security systems are one example. Lights can be programmed to turn on and off throughout an extended absence, just as physical timers do today. Smart appliances like printers, faxes, postage meters and even forklifts can report back their condition to one location. With some further software, these things can order their own replacement parts and refills. All this was forecast decades ago, but with WiFi it’s possible.

One of the more hyped and potentially important implications is energy savings. Lights can be dimmed in accordance with occupation, or shut off altogether. Computers, monitors, printers and similar devices can be hibernated, all from one command station. Refrigerators can be put into power-save mode when nobody is expected to be opening their doors. There’s no reason phones can’t be rigged to report out the number of calls and how long they’ve taken, as well as who was called and who called you, all without the help of the phone company or a big PBX. Enable or disable copiers or postage meters from a distance, to keep down personal usage. Or the copiers or meters could report out their usage remotely, so you can track it and uncover suspicious spikes in volume.

The essence of this revolution is moving intelligence from a big computer or a phone company office to the very device that’s being controlled and interrogated by a smartphone or tablet. In effect, everyday devices become computer peripherals. Laboratories have been promising us intelligent commonplace things for years, but the promise has always exceeded the reality, mostly because of cost. But now, since the emphasis is on home device control, costs are likely to come down.

We can only hope that manufacturers won’t forget the businessfolk, and design smart things for us, too.•

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Altom is a consultant specializing in pairing businesses with appropriate technology. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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