Devices that phone home

For some years, there has been discussion about how embedded devices are increasingly becoming connected. WiFi enabled home appliances are one possibility. Everyone has heard about fridges that order the groceries. I love the concept of the Internet enabled toaster, which checks the weather forecast and burns a symbol onto your morning toast to tell you what to expect.

All of this is great, exciting even, and we are moving in this direction, but there are other possibilities that have hardly been touched yet. There are a few issues with WiFi devices: they need to be in range of a wireless network, they consume quite a lot of power and their implementation may be overly complex, if only small amounts of data need to be transferred and that transfer is just unidirectional. There must be another way …

What about cellular telephone technology? We think in terms of cell phones as being devices that let two people talk or exchange text messages. But there is no reason why one or both of the communicating parties could not be machines.

Let me posit a real world example. My father is 80 years old and has a heart condition. He visits hospitals for regular checks, but cannot be monitored 24/7 without totally constraining his lifestyle. He would benefit greatly from having a device that constantly monitored his heart function and periodically sent the critical data [via an SMS – enough capacity, cheap, low tech and easy] to his doctor. He could then be recalled if worrying trends were observed. Maybe it could go a step further: if the device also had GPS functionality, it could be programmed to detect a serious problem and automatically place the 911 [or, in the UK, 999 or 112] call. I would be very pleased to buy one of these for my Dad’s 81st birthday.

Why are such devices not yet available? Or, at least, not widely so. A significant reason is the complexity of putting all the parts together. In software terms, there is the need to integrate the cellular communications stack with an OS and build applications on top of that. This is all possible, but somewhat specialized and expensive. The current results of such efforts are high end smart phones.Android

Things are changing. Unless you have been living in a cave for the last year, you cannot fail to have heard of the Google Android platform. This open source software provides a pre-built integration of cellular communications and an OS, with a well defined application interface.

So, what is the problem? My credit card awaits.

There will be more on Linux and Android in this blog in the weeks to come, as Mentor has just announced its strategy. I will be interested in your comments.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/embedded-software/2009/07/27/devices-that-phone-home/