We started with Internet-enabled PCs, moved to Internet-enabled phones and now are strapping on Internet-enabled watches. What comes next? Perhaps something as simple as an Internet-enabled button.
Telefónica, a Spanish carrier with network operations in many countries around the world, on Wednesday unveiled what it calls a smart button along with a couple partners who'll bring it to real-world tasks. Cabify will let people order car transportation by pushing the button; a tiny printer inside will print a receipt with information about the driver that's been dispatched. Shipping company Seur will let customers push the button to generate a request for a package to be collected. An earlier test with Telepizza let people use the smart buttons to order pizzas.
It's similar to, which enable one-click ordering of household products. But Telefónica's buttons use cellular networks, not home Wi-Fi, and thus can be placed anywhere in a city or town. And by tapping standard smartphone networks, they can be used across the world, not just on Telefónica's networks.
The smart buttons represent the latest twist in a burgeoning category of products called the Internet of Things, which spreads networked computing to everything from traffic lights to door locks. It's a market in which many companies are keen to get a foothold, since global spending on devices and services related to the Internet of Things is expected to grow from $656 billion in 2014 to $1.7 trillion in 2020, according to research firm IDC.
Pushing a smart button to get a pizza may seem uncomfortably close to behavioral experiments in which pigeons peck a key to get a reward, but lacing computer-powered, network-linked automation through our world could offer convenience and utility, not just instant gratification.
Telefónica plans to offer an unbranded version of the smart button for other companies that want to customize it, the company said. A smart button could be handy for letting people hail a taxi, vote on which mural they like best in a public art installation or alert a laundromat that a washer needs maintenance. The devices can rely on battery power or be plugged in.
Smart buttons vs. smartphones
But the idea faces a big challenge in the real world: smartphones already bring the Internet to people outside their homes. A taxi app can flag down a cab from wherever you are, not just wherever a button happens to be, and smartphones offer a lot more sophistication, like a way to pay for that car ride, too. Companies considering the idea also might prefer people to use their own phones to avoid pranksters and vandals who might abuse the button system.
Telefonica wasn't available to comment on the potential abuses the buttons may face in public.
Many Internet of Things companies sell gadgets, but Telefónica sees the technology as a new way to sell network access, too. Still, it's hedging its bets:that offers its own network specifically for the Internet of Things. The Sigfox network offers long-range communications, low power consumption and low cost, but only carries tiny amounts of data compared to mobile phone networks. Sigfox could serve as an alternative network connecting nontraditional devices like washing machines and dog collars.
But for now Telefonica's smart buttons use the regular phone network. Each smart button has a cellular-based SIM (subscriber identity module) card inside to identify the device on the network. SIM cards, which are tiny computer chips embedded in a sliver of plastic, carry an ID number and a digital key to authenticate a device on a network, and are found in every smartphone.
One major SIM card maker, Gemalto, is promoting a more rugged alternative it calls MIM, or machine identification modules, for industrial uses on the Internet of Things. One example it announced this week: an oceanography consulting firm called HidroMares will build them into sensors that detect wave motions, currents, and the salinity, depth and temperature of water at ports. The sensors are fixed to buoys and piers help port operators make navigation safer and faster.
Marine shipping may not be as fun as holding a spontaneous pizza picnic in the park. But at a deeper level, it comes down to the same thing: wiring the Internet into everything we do.