Don't Judge a Book By Its Coverage Area

Some astute tech news readers may have noticed what seemed like a fairly ludicrous claim of potential growth the other day by Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg. In his keynote to the CTIA conference, Seidenberg talked about the possibility of reaching 500% penetration of wireless devices in the near future in the US. While it is possible for wireless to break 100% penetration in a given market—the UAE reported higher than 170% penetration last year, meaning the average person had 1.7 mobile subscriptions—500% seems a bit extreme. Multiple handset ownership isn't uncommon now in wealthier markets, but five per person is a little over the top.

What Seidenberg was actually referring to was the potential for embedded wireless technology in places other than the mobile phone—in laptops, appliances, set-top boxes, gaming devices, vehicles, and just about anything else that might either need a data connection or might otherwise have something to "say" to its owners, service suppliers or other objects.

Verizon already has 36 devices certified under its Open Development Initiative, including health devices, and other objects that may be monitoring something and need to report. Verizon isn't alone in this strategy: T-Mobile just announced a new embedded SIM for similar purposes, much smaller than a phone SIM card, able to be tucked away in a dizzying array of objects, machines and devices.

This idea isn't exactly new. The concept of M2M, or machine to machine, communication has been around for years, and mainly addressed industrial applications, in areas such as security, logistics, systems management, etc. What makes this idea interesting now is its movement into the retail consumer arena, and the push mobile operators are giving embedded wireless as a future growth opportunity.

The Kindle e-book reader, for example, quietly synchs itself using Sprint's US EVDO wireless network. As a result, in effect books have coverage areas. Take your Kindle outside the US at the moment, and it can't communicate to Whispernet, its carrier network, to synch between devices or download new content. While we are still in very early days, we are gradually sliding into the E2E, or everything-to-everything, era. We are already seeing this with app-rich devices such as the iPhone. As we become more reliant on these apps for information and utility, we also become reliant on their ability to talk to the necessary servers, other devices, or objects.

Beyond the obvious devices we already have in our pockets or on desktops or shelves, what mundane, everyday objects will be transformed not by the ability but the need to communicate to function? A lot of discussion has gone on recently about cloud computing's benefits and possible risks, but we haven't really extended that discussion (at the same level) to the possibilities embedded wireless opens up to the everyday world around us and the changes it will bring to our expectations and behaviors. Much of the debate is taking place at the philosophical and design levels, but not yet as extensively at the level of common consumer objects and how their roles in our daily lives may be transformed. Forget arguments about whether an e-reader can "read" to you aloud and who owns the royalties for that act and think about what everyday items your mobile operator will enable.

The cross-branding potential and the impact of bleeding technology values into previously non-technology processes will both be interesting to unpack. Will I bundle my microwave or running shoes with voice and Web on my AT&T bill? What's the quality of service expectation for my dictionary or Financial Times subscription? Sooner or later, we will start to ask these questions.