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WTF is... Weightless?

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Weightless, the would-be world standard that allows devices to talk to devices without human intervention, reaches its first major release milestone this spring.

Version 1.0 of the technology specification is set to be published in March or April and then it will be able to begin making the much-hyped but yet to be delivered ‘internet of things’ start to happen, or so its backers believe.

IoT is about making it possible for devices to communicate autonomously, rather than solely as carriers of human conversation, be it vocal, video or textual. It’s a fluffy, Web 2.0 term for the old notion of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, a business which has been steadily growing over the past two decades, primarily on the back of expanding cellular networks run by operators keen to enable more serious stuff than Facebook updates and text messages for teenagers.

M2M may have been around for years, but it remains a long way from fulfilling its potential, even those possible applications that don’t sound too sci-fi. Imagine a world where gadgets are able to send each other appropriate information to save people from having to, or when humans are either too busy or simply not present to do so.

M2M and IoT proponents talk not only of driverless cars and smart cities, but of more useful things like home sensors that monitor occupants’ physiological signs to automatically call medical emergency crews should heartbeats stop. Or car-to-car links that send warnings from vehicle to vehicle to automatically prevent them getting too close, or to slow them in response to hazards up the road. Even prosaic, dull-sounding applications like monitoring the state of central heating systems are possible.

Incidentally, big software companies like Oracle are quite keen on M2M too. They eye the opportunities for cloud storage and big-data processing all the information flowing in from devices will require.

The world's devices, connected

There are perhaps tens or hundreds of millions of connected devices already in place across the world. That sounds a great many, but the world is a big place and they are spread thin. Many analysts believe that, given the right, non-proprietary technology, the market could rapidly expand to more than 50 billion devices.

What has prevented these applications from taking off, or at least remaining experimental, is the lack of an appropriate networking technology which can deliver all these digital messages, very cheaply and easily, and doesn’t depend on relatively fragile - no service-level agreements; punters can turn them off - infrastructure, such as consumer broadband links. Weightless’ supporters reckon it’s the answer.

The technology was devised by Neul, a Cambridge-based start-up founded in 2011. Late last year, the company established the Weightless Special Interest Group with the help of big guns ARM, Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) and Cable & Wireless to promote Weightless as a globally relevant, open standard.

To reach its full potential, M2M needs a network that’s ubiquitous. Devices have to be sure they can communicate, after all. A wireless car, for example, becomes useless if it moves beyond range of a base station. The mobile phone network operators have the reach, but their infrastructure is very expensive to extend and to maintain. That makes them pricey to use for many potential M2M applications where cost can quickly outweigh utility.

Clearly, devices like sensors and monitors need to be able to run for months, ideally years, on a single battery, or to be able to operate on a trickle charge from a renewable source of energy, such as a solar panel. That mandates ultra-low power transmissions because owners don’t want to pay people to find and change a huge number of batteries month in, month out.

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