Has the service person ever shown up for the coffee machine at your office, even though nobody called? The reason is that someone, or rather some thing, did call. Specifically the coffee machine called the service company and it used the cellular network to do it.
One piece of the picture behind this is a technological field called M2M or Machine to Machine. The defining characteristic of M2M is that it's about devices independently communicating wirelessly, as opposed to a user-driven device like a smart phone.
M2M was a fairly common buzzword at the recent CTIA Wireless conference in New Orleans. I spoke to Sierra Wireless at CTIA about the business. Sierra is in a number of wireless markets; I have one of their mobile hot spots and the technology obviously has a lot in common. In fact, I'm tempted to think that drawing a distinction for M2M because it's not user-driven is an artificial one. They're just another kind of embedded cellular controller. But the term has certainly caught on.
You might have heard of this phenomenon years ago as the "Internet of things," although that term wasn't restricted to mobile devices but to all embedded wireless applications that were not user driven.
You might wonder at the cost of using the cellular network in this way, but it can be done quite reasonably. These devices generally don't need high-speed access and don't call that often. Sierra Wireless said that it could be done for $1 per device per month. That sure beats sending out a tech to work on the device.
Sierra Wireless' controller product line is called AirPrime and is used in conjunction with the company's AirVantage M2M management system. Through the management system you can decide what to do with the data coming in and what instructions to send to the devices.
M2M is more than just efficiency. Imagine a vending machine that is running out of Diet Coke the day before your historical data shows high traffic for that product. Now you know to send someone out to fill the machine. In fact, you probably don't have to send them; the management system can be programmed to do so.
Much innovation in technology happens under the covers, in places where normal people don't look. Peek under the cover these days and you might see some machine phoning home to the mothership.