Keep the buzz on

Three more technologies percolating up in the industry.

Near Field Communication: Secure mobile commerce

Add Near Field Communication to your list of what to know about wireless communications. NFC, the brainchild of Royal Philips Electronics and Sony, promises to be a safer, more affordable option than competing close-range wireless options.

Equipment vendors and wireless network service providers see a number of advantages in using NFC for information exchanges. NFC, which supports transmission speeds up to 212K bit/sec, is inexpensive, costing 10 to 20 times less than alternatives, and requires one-half to one-third as much power as options such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. And best of all, NFC has a transmission range of only a few feet, which makes it difficult - some would say impossible - for intruders to tap into.

While a number of NFC trials are underway in Asia, a group of about 50 diverse vendors, including MasterCard International, Microsoft, Motorola and Visa International, have formed the NFC Forum to promote the technology. The group is focusing on NFC's ability to authorize e-commerce payments in devices such as mobile phones, digital cameras and game consoles. In effect, these devices will function like credit or debit cards and offer users one more way to buy products and services.

"NFC could play an important role in helping vendors realize the promise of mobile commerce," says Allen Nogee, wireless technology analyst at In-Stat/MDR.

Podcasting: An enterprise challenge

After plunking down the cash for an iPod - and Apple reports that more than 20 million people have done so - consumers are often quite open to putting the device to novel use. Consequently, determining what is growing faster has become difficult: iPod acceptance, which Apple says has seen more than 500% annual growth in shipments, or the cottage industries that have sprung up around it.

The latest rage is podcasting; market research firm The Diffusion Group expects the number of U.S. consumers who engage in podcasting to grow from 4.5 million in 2005 to 56.8 million in 2010.

With podcasting, if users miss their favorite radio programs, they can later download the broadcasts down their iPods - or other MP3 player - as Really Simple Syndication files, an XML variation designed to aggregate news feeds. Public Radio International's Christopher Lydon is one radio host who podcasts his show, while Stephen Downes, a senior researcher at Canada's National Research Center, uses the technology to augment his blog, as do many others. "Most Web sites already put their content in MP3 format, so tweaking it for podcasting is a simple process," says Mike McGuire, a Gartner research director.

In June 2005, Apple blessed podcasting with the announcement of its iTunes Podcasting Directory and then delivered more than 1 million podcasts to customers in two days. "Eventually, all mainstream media organizations will view podcasting as one of their necessary distribution channels," says Marc Freedman, an analyst with The Diffusion Group.

Network executives who haven't yet thought about the technology's potential affect on the corporate backbone ought to do so soon. Corporate-use policies should take the popular application into account, and bandwidth consumption should be monitored.

ZigBee: Smarts for sensor nets

Success of the standards-based Wi-Fi is having a major affect on the design of sensors used in devices such as light switches, fire and smoke detectors, thermostats, and appliances. Vendors have eschewed the traditional proprietary networks for collecting performance data from these products in favor of a standards-based approach. A group of more than 100 vendors has developed the ZigBee standard, allowing sensors to transfer information in a standard manner.

ZigBee has been a while in coming. About four years ago, sensor device suppliers looked at their options for a standard network. Unlike enterprise and even home networks, sensor networks transmit small volumes of simple data - for instance, is a light on or off? They ruled out popular Wi-Fi 802.11 standards as too complex, delivering more bandwidth than needed, and difficult to manage. They nixed infrared technologies used for home security systems because they need a clear line of sight to communicate, which is not always present. Bluetooth was the most likely possibility, but they also deemed it too complex and expensive.

So the vendors developed ZigBee, which operates in the 2.4-GHz radio band - the same one used by Wi-Fi systems, microwave ovens and cordless phones. The standard supports data transmission at rates up to 250K bit/sec at ranges from 30 to 200 feet. The specification supports a mesh network connecting up to 65,000 network nodes.

Once deployed, ZigBee networks can perform various maintenance functions, such as collecting information from smoke detectors. "Because ZigBee provides sensor vendors with a simple, inexpensive way to transfer information, novel ways of taking advantage of the technology are starting to emerge," says Glen Allmendinger, president of Harbor Research, which expects the number of ZigBee-compliant nodes to increase from 200,000 in 2004 to 100 million in 2008. Those numbers translate into another successful network standard.

Korzeniowski is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Mass., specializing in technology issues. He can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

Learn more about this topic

NFC Forum's NFC White Paper (PDF)

Network World technology podcast directory

Bluetooth and ZigBee: Their similarities and differences

02/28/05

The ZigBee Alliance

ZigBee group OKs spec for wireless sensor nets

12/16/04

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