Five billionth device about to plug into Internet

Growth fueled by consumer electronics, machine-to-machine

Sometime this month, the 5 billionth device will plug into the Internet. And in 10 years, that number will grow by more than a factor of four, according to IMS Research, which tracks the installed base of equipment that can access the Internet.

On the surface, this second tidal wave of growth will be driven by cell phones and new classes of consumer electronics, according to an IMS statement. But an even bigger driver will be largely invisible: machine-to-machine communications in various kinds of smart grids for energy management, surveillance and public safety, traffic and parking control, and sensor networks.

Earlier this year, Cisco forecast equally steep growth rates in personal devices and overall Internet traffic. [See "Global IP traffic to increase fivefold by 2013, Cisco predicts"]

Today, there are over 1 billion computers that regularly connect to the Internet. That class of devices, including PCs and laptops and their associated networking gear, continues to grow.

But cellular devices, such as Internet-connected smartphones,  have outstripped that total and are growing at a much faster rate. Then add in tablets, eBook readers, Internet TVs, cameras, digital picture frames, and a host of other networked consumer electronics devices, and the IMS forecast of 22 billion Internet devices by 2010 doesn’t seem farfetched.

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The research firm projects that in 10 years, there will be 6 billion cell phones, most of them with Internet connectivity. An estimated 2.5 billion televisions today will largely be replaced by TV sets that are Internet capable, either directly or through a set-top box. More and more of the world’s one billion automobiles will be replaced by newer models with integrated Internet access.

Yet, the greatest growth potential is in machine-to-machine, according to IMS President Ian Weightman. Research firm Gartner named machine-to-machine communications one of the top 10 mobile technologies to watch in 2010. And almost exactly one year ago, Qualcomm and Verizon created a joint-venture company specifically to support machine-to-machine wireless services. 

"This has the potential to go way beyond industrial applications to encompass [such applications as] increasingly sophisticated smart grids, networked security cameras and sensors, connected home appliances and HVAC equipment, and ITS infrastructure for traffic and parking management," Weightman said in a statement.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for "Network World."

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Email: john_cox@nww.com

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