Millions and millions of devices, from vending machines to automobiles, heating controls to security systems, can now be Internet-enabled due to the removal of the electronics cost barrier.
This mass connectivity opens radical new opportunities for designers and engineers to control and communicate with these devices using the Internet and presents exciting new business opportunities for large corporations, manufacturers and service providers. The dramatic cost reductions of such mass device Internet-connectivity is made possible through technology developed by LiveDevices, a business based in York, England.
LiveDevices, the new Internet infrastructure division of Northern Real-Time Applications*, has developed super-efficient embedded Internet connectivity software to run in very low cost hardware (i.e. less than $5), making it economically viable for the first time to connect many millions of appliances to the web.
“A lot of people share this vision, but it required technology to break a cost barrier to make the vision an economic reality. With the LiveDevices embedded products this barrier has been broken”, said LiveDevices’ Chief Technology Officer, Dr Ken Tindell.
LiveDevices has a strategic alliance with Microchip Technology, a leading supplier of cost-optimized microelectronics targeted at the volume industries. LiveDevices embedded software products run on the new low cost PIC18CXXX family of microcontrollers from Microchip Technology.
Millions of devices on the Internet will generate a mass of data, and LiveDevices provides infrastructure services to allow organizations to outsource the collation and management of the vast volumes of information that will flow from the client devices. The LiveDevices services give each registered device an account that manages things like security keys and device status (so a device can check its account to see if it has been reported stolen, for example). Other services include SMS forwarding (so any registered device can send a short text message to a mobile phone or pager).
WHY PUT DEVICES ON THE INTERNET?
There is a trend within the mainstream IT industry towards lightweight thin clients, and this trend is about to be followed by the volume manufacturing industries.
A growing number of OEM companies in these industries desire to embed Internet connectivity into their devices for many reasons varying from adding new functionality to reducing bill-of-materials by moving resources and intelligence from high-cost computing hardware in devices to low-cost computing resources in a central server.
Imagine an Internet-connected VCR, an iVCR. Customers access and control their VCR product via a web site operated by the OEM or by a service provider. The web site has a real-time TV guide and the user programs the VCR via a “point-and-shoot” web interface, using a regular web browser (a PC or an Internet appliance) or an Internet cellphone while on the move (a WAP or 3G phone).
The central server remembers the desired TV shows and tells the VCR what to tape and when. The server also remembers what it put on each tape in the user’s library and hence can present a tape “file system” to the user.
The value to the customer in this scenario is clear: they gets a better product with much better functionality. There is considerable value to the OEM as well: the iVCR can be simpler than a regular VCR (an iVCR needs no clock, it needs no non-volatile set-up memory, it needs no on-screen display).
There is also considerable value in the web site itself: a site with a hundred million sessions a week can obtain significant advertising revenue (especially since such advertising can be targeted by knowing each customer’s likes and dislikes through their viewing habits).
Imagine an Internet-connected automobile, an iAutomobile. Each car is connected via an ‘always-on’ GPRS or 3G cellphone.
Each car can get route planning services from a central server using real-time mapping data. Each car is also used as a sensor in a continent-wide traffic management system: cars regularly upload speed and position data (obtained from the vehicle control systems and from on-board GPS hardware) and a central server consolidates the data to infer the traffic situation on all roads.
Each vehicle is advised of traffic problems and alternative routes offered where appropriate. The vehicle manufacturer also provides services. For example, an iAutomobile can have engine management data stored centrally so that engine performance can be upgraded remotely.
The value to the customer in this scenario is clear: they get a better product with much better functionality. There is considerable value to the OEM and service provider as well: the traffic management system can be constructed without costly infrastructure (there is no need for costly road-side beacons) yet generate significant new revenue.
There is also new pay-as-you-go revenue from renting (for example) engine management upgrades and other vehicle functionality. The OEM can reduce the bill-of-materials by moving intelligence and resources from the iAutomobile to the device (for example, diagnostic functionality can be moved out of the vehicle and into an intelligent central server).
LIVEDEVICES IP TECHNOLOGY FOR OPEN NON-PROPRIETARY NETWORKING
Today there are many technologies for Internet access (dial-up, cable, DSL, fixed wireless, GPRS, and so on) and many possibilities for the gateway hardware (conventional routers, set-top boxes, games consoles, and so on). There are also many short-distance candidates for carrying traffic to and from the gateway hardware (Bluetooth, HomeRF, powerline wireless, infrared, Ethernet, and so on).
Each of these technologies has merits in its target area and it is likely that all will be present. However, all technologies will support the universal building block of the Internet: Internet Protocol (IP) packets.
A strategy that is based on a truly global, open and non-proprietary protocol like IP is immune to shifts in technology or industry direction. LiveDevices embedded Internet connectivity software supports IP directly (and the significant higher-level protocols such as TCP and HTTP) and therefore can support all suitable Internet-connectivity technologies.
LIVEDEVICES EMBEDDED PRODUCTS
The LiveDevices Standard TCP/IP Stack product will be made available to developers for free download from the LiveDevices web site (www.livedevices.com). This product can be embedded freely by OEM companies into products at no charge. The software runs on the Microchip PIC18CXXX family of devices and supports the basic Internet protocols (IP, TCP, UDP, ICMP, SLIP, PPP, HTTP, FTP, finger, TFTP, ping).
The run-time footprint is tiny (for example IP takes just 3152 bytes of ROM and 126 bytes of RAM) and so is cost-effective in high-volume production. The product also an SMS client for messaging to cellphones and pages via the LiveDevices SMS service (see below). Technical support and source code can be purchased. The product will be available in Q2 2001.
The LiveDevices Professional TCP/IP Stack product is based on the Standard TCP/IP Stack with the addition of professional-level Internet functionality (Ethernet, DHCP, DNS, POP3, SMTP, RFS, RPC).
The product also contains clients for additional LiveDevices infrastructure services (see below). The Professional Stack is priced from $7500 for development tools and ¢20 per deployed device for run-time fees. The price includes technical support for 12 months. The product will be available in Q2 2001.
The LiveDevices Standard and Professional TCP/IP Stack products run under the LiveDevices real-time kernel. The kernel product will be made available to developers for free download from the LiveDevices web site. This product can be embedded freely by OEM companies into products at no charge.
The kernel runs on the Microchip PIC18CXXX family of devices and supports advanced functionality: priority pre-emptive multitasking of up to 256 tasks, communication via pipes, and scheduling via alarms. An application of five tasks requires just 1910 bytes of ROM and 390 bytes of RAM. Technical support and source code can be purchased. The product will be available in Q2 2001.
LIVEDEVICES INFRASTRUCTURE SERVICES
LiveDevices infrastructure services are provided on a secure LiveDevices server farm and will be available in Q2 2001.
Three services are provided initially, with further services to be announced later this year. The basic LiveDevices service is account management: each device has its own account on the server farm. Account management at the OEM or service provider is supported via secure web access.
The account provides device activation, de-activation, security key storage, and enabling of other services. This allows (for example) a device to disable itself in the event of account de-activation after theft.
The data storage service creates a file system for each enabled device that can be read from and written to by each device. This allows the replacement of in-device non-volatile storage (for example EEPROM). The consolidated file space can be accessed from a desktop PC at the OEM or service provider, allowing the data to feed into existing MIS infrastructure. The LiveDevices Professional TCP/IP Stack product includes embedded client software to access the data storage service.
The SMS gateway service allows a device to connect to the LiveDevices server farm and send a short text message along with cellphone and pager details. The server then takes responsibility for transferring the text message to the appropriate network. A flexible account structure is provided (either on a per-device basis or an OEM account basis) and details such as available credit and message service use are maintained and accessible online. Both the Standard TCP/IP Stack and Professional TCP/IP Stack products include embedded client software to access the SMS gateway service.
Detailed pricing for all services will be announced at availability.