An ‘apps store’ for utilities?

Posted on March 15th, 2011 by

A collaboration between a smart grid communications company and a telecom giant may usher in a new way for utilities to create, find, install and deploy applications.

On the grid side is SmartSynch, the Jackson, MS-based maker of communications and networking products, most notably modules that let smart meters talk via cellular networks. On the telecom side is Qualcomm, the San Diego giant known best for its cellular chipsets.

SmartSynch is calling its new offering a “communications platform and applications environment.” If it succeeds (more on that below) it will create an apps store for utilities — a place they can shop for applications or sell ones they’ve built themselves.

As part of the arrangement, SmartSynch is:

1.    Putting Qualcomm 3G chipsets into its modules (it will have them available for most major meter brands by the third quarter)

2.    Helping extend Qualcomm’s popular Brew MP development kit to address smart grid functionality

3.    Opening a Web site where developers can sell and utilities can shop for compatible applications

Opening smart grid to more developers

Brew MP is a popular framework for building mobile applications for smart phones. With smart grid extensions, it should provide an easier way to build mobile applications for smart grids. And an easier way to distribute them, since they can be downloaded and then remotely distributed.

The first applications are likely to include prepayment, demand response and commercial lighting. Mobile workforce management and home energy management are among the other possibilities.

SmartSynch is already at work building applications on its own and with partners; it also hopes to recruit other developers. In theory, the program will open up the smart grid to the small army of developers who already use Brew MP. In theory, they should be able to quickly adapt their applications for the smart grid, or to develop completely new ones.

One possible source of applications may be utilities themselves. Some utilities may use Brew MP to build their own smart grid applications. They could then offer them for sale via the SmartSynch store.

If you build it, will they come?

Apps stores need a critical mass of both developers and buyers. Can SmartSynch’s effort attract enough support from both sides? Apple’s Apps Store is limited to applications for the iPhone. In a similar fashion, SmartSynch’s “store” is limited to applications for meters with the SmartSynch/Qualcomm chipset.

As a result, the success of this ambitious plan depends partly on wide acceptance of public cellular for smart grid communications. To date, U.S. utilities have overwhelmingly preferred to build their own private networks instead, using technologies such as RF mesh, point-to-point or WiFi.

SmartSynch argues that cellular has the higher bandwidth needed by utilities as they layer on more applications. And that it has the wide coverage ideal for mobile applications. However, despite dramatic price reductions by the major telcos, only a few utilities have taken the cellular plunge to date.

Since the service and the store don’t launch until the third quarter of 2011, it is far too early to predict whether or not it will succeed. Either way, I think it points our industry in the right direction.

Utilities shouldn’t be locked into those few applications developed by a single vendor. Or the few they have time and resources to build on their own. They deserve to have a wide selection of quality applications. For that to happen, we need platforms — so developers can build once and sell to many — and we need stores — so utilities have a place to browse and select from multiple options.

Written by Jesse Berst, Smart Grid News

Jesse Berst is founding editor and chief analyst for Smart Grid News, which produces daily news analysis, email newsletters, and the Web’s largest collection of Smart Grid-specific resources, including research papers, case studies and project updates.

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