The ability to remotely monitor and troubleshoot any piece of equipment is about to fundamentally alter the way most businesses handle product support.
Led by AT&T Network Services, a variety of telecommunications companies are gearing up to offer managed network services for intelligent devices.
Any device -- from something as simple as a washing machine to more complex handheld systems -- that can be connected to a network can be managed by the AT&T service.
AT&T hopes to roll out this service, which is currently in pilot testing, in early 2000, said Michael Grohnab, director of global marketing and sales support at AT&T, in Tampa, Florida.
Similarly, vendor Rapid Logic already delivers intelligent device-management software with a product called RapidControl.
According to company officials, RapidControl unifies the various means of accessing, managing, and controlling intelligent devices.
Based on a heterogeneous data-access model called the RapidControl Backplane, Rapid Logic provides many of the capabilities that are being promoted as future functions that can be enabled only by technologies such as Sun's Jini initiative.
"It's akin to what Sun talks about with Jini, but we are delivering products," said Mark Sigal, chief executive officer of Rapid Logic.
"If we can provide a mechanism for standardising the output that comes out of the device, it becomes possible to automate the technical support processes," Sigal said.
RapidControl is already used by Nortel, Nokia, Cisco and Ericsson, Sigal said.
The impact that AT&T services and others like it could have on business operations could be immense. In effect, any business that requires support people to visit customers in the field could now monitor the performance of a device and anticipate its failure. This means that customer service personnel could be dispatched to replace a part before the failure actually occurred.
In addition, these types of services could fundamentally change the way devices are manufactured. In today's market, more and more devices are being built to order to satisfy mass customisation requirements.
But in the future, manufacturers will be able to build one variation of their product and then enable more features by remotely downloading firmware for that device to a programmable chip embedded in that device.
For example, a scanner manufacturer could sell one product at a certain base price. If a customer wanted to turn on more high-end features, he or she would then download the code to turn on those features for an additional price.
A key player in this emerging arena is emWare, a company that delivers firmware to network-enable 8-bit and 16-bit embedded processors that can be used in a wide range of devices.
EmWare specialises in providing device-networking solutions.
The company has spearheaded the formation of a 21-vendor alliance called Embed the Internet Alliance, or ETI Alliance, which aims to enable any electronic device to be managed or controlled remotely via the internet or any network.
The ETI Alliance is positioning emWare's Emit device-networking solution as the standard for networking 8-, 16- and 32-bit electronic devices found in home and business products, as well as in industrial equipment, emWare officials said.
Other key members of the alliance include AT&T Global Network Services, Analog Devices, Hitachi Semiconductor (America), Mitsubishi Electronics America, Motorola Semiconductor, National Semiconductor, Pervasive Software, SAP AG, and Phillips Semiconductors.
Ephraim Schwartz and Paul Krill contributed to this articleIntelligent DevicesThere are a range of products that could be managed remotely.
-- Handheld computers
-- Household appliances
-- Office equipment
-- Consumer electronics
-- Network hardware