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Promise and peril in an ultra-connected world

03 March 2014, 15:43

Barcelona - We're in the beginning of a world in which everything is connected to the internet and with one another, while powerful yet relatively cheap computers analyse all that data for ways to improve lives.

Toothbrushes tell your mirror to remind you to floss. Basketball jerseys detect impending heart failure and call the ambulance for you.

At least that's the vision presented this past week at the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona, Spain. The four-day conference highlighted what the tech industry has loosely termed "the internet of things".

Some of that wisdom is already available or promised by the end of the year.

Fitness devices from Sony and Samsung connect with your smartphones to provide digital records of your daily lives. French startup Cityzen Sciences has embedded fabric with heart-rate and other sensors to track your physical activities.

Internet-connected toothbrushes are coming from Procter and Gamble's Oral-B business and from another French startup, Kolibree. The mirror part is still a prototype, but Oral-B's smartphone app does tell you to floss.

Car makers are building in smarter navigation and other hands-free services, while IBM and AT&T are jointly equipping cities with sensors and computers for parking meters, traffic lights and water systems to all communicate.

Internet-connected products represent a growth opportunity for wireless carriers, as the smartphone business slows down in developed markets because most people already have service.

With the technological foundations here, the bigger challenge is getting people, businesses and municipalities to see the potential. Then there are security and privacy concerns - health insurance companies would love access to your fitness data to set premiums.

At a more basic level, these systems have to figure out a way to talk the same language.

You might buy your phone from Apple, your TV from Sony and your refrigerator from Samsung. It would be awful to get left out because you aren't loyal to a single company. Plus, the smartest engineers in computing aren't necessarily the best in clothing and construction.

Expect companies to work together to set standards, much the way academic and military researchers created a common language decades ago for disparate computer networks to communicate, forming the internet. Gadget makers are starting to build APIs - interfaces for other systems to pull and understand data.

Building everything is too much for a single company, yet "they want all this stuff to work together", said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, a backer of the Tizen project for connecting watches, cars and more.

Samsung's new fitness watches will use Tizen, and tools have been built to talk with Samsung's Android phones.

- AP


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