Over-the-air (OTA) device management has been the realm of phones
but now is reaching into new industries.

There are millions of machines around the world that communicate with cellular networks. Most of these machines, if they were human, would be very lonely, occupying remote locations where people often don’t go without difficulty. Not to humanize them too much, but those wireless calls the machines get are about the only contact they have.

That’s a problem in the machine-to-machine (M2M) communications industry, because these devices live alone in the field for years while the world around them changes. Those changes sometimes affect M2M devices to the point they need to be able to accept the changes with software updates.

Harbor Research estimates there were more than 110 million M2M devices deployed globally by the end of 2007. Another market research firm, IDATE, says 500 million M2M devices will be deployed by 2010. So, keeping all of those devices up-to-date is no small task.

Mobile device management used to be all about updating mobile phones with the latest software. But Richard Kinder, technology vice president for Red Bend Software, says the need for over-the-air software updates has expanded dramatically in the last year into M2M modules and other devices such as PC cards and USB modems.

Richard Kinder
Kinder: M2M needs
over-the-air updates.

M2M modules attached to monitoring equipment for things like natural gas and oil pipelines have become more commonplace. But these modules are expected to last a lot longer than a cell phone – a 7- to 10-year lifespan is not uncommon. During that time, there could be a lot of changes that need to be reflected in the software on the device.

Companies that deploy these M2M modules in the field don’t typically make a lot of revenue off each device, so sending a technician out to update the software can really cut into the profit margins, says Kinder. Red Bend recently licensed its vCurrent Mobile technology to the M2M provider Telit Wireless Solutions to provide OTA updates instead of sending a technician out.

Sometimes a change in the cellular network infrastructure can take M2M modules out of service.

Brian Tucker, senior vice president of global product management for Telit, remembers a case in The Netherlands where the cellular operator switched equipment vendors and Telit’s M2M devices stopped communicating. In another case, a route update of a network switch affected the M2M communications.

Now, using Red Bend’s firmware OTA (FOTA) solution, Telit can keep the M2M devices current and in communication, Tucker says.

“Until FOTA,” he says, “you had to touch the device, update it in the field or replace it or send it back for service. It’s a substantial amount of money to do this. There may only be 10% of the devices that can be reached easily.”

For carrier customers like AT&T, Telit now can push out updates automatically and quickly without sending a lot of data over the network. Tucker says OTA is like a warranty on an M2M device for the carriers.

Brian Tucker
Tucker: Not all machines
can be reached easily
or cost-effectively.

Tucker knows about the costs of doing firmware updates in mobile devices. He used to work for Ford Motor Company in telematics. If a fleet of cars had to be recalled for a telematics software update, it could cost as much as $500 per vehicle. “You’re in the millions of dollars real quick that way,” he says.

Some of Telit’s customers have told the company they will not deploy any more M2M modules without a FOTA capability. “They are getting very concerned,” Tucker says. “It’s becoming the top of their priority list.”

Telit has been doing tests with AT&T of the FOTA capability, and Tucker expects it to launch on the carrier network in May.

Telit also is working with Sprint Nextel on M2M device updating, but using a different technology called OMA DM (the Open Mobile Alliance Device Management) specification. That deployment is still in tests.

M2M isn’t the only trend for OTA and mobile device management (MDM). Microsoft recently announced the availability of its System Center Mobile Device Manager 2008 and plans for a Microsoft Mobile Services Plan which mobile operators can offer to enterprise customers.

Microsoft did test programs for its Mobile Device Manager with companies in the financial, manufacturing and professional services industries. A study by the software giant also showed enterprises wanted the ability to manage phones as easily as they do Windows-based PCs, the capability to protect sensitive business files and encrypt data on phones, plus the use of a mobile virtual private network.

Microsoft says it is in discussion with several leading operators to use the Mobile Services Plan, which is designed to provide a uniform experience on all Windows Mobile 6.1 handsets across multiple networks.

Among the operators expected to enable Microsoft’s MDM solution are Alltel, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless. Device manufacturers using the platform include ASUS, HP, HTC, i-Mate, Intermec, Motorola, Palm, Pantech, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and Toshiba.