Two different types of approaches to connected devices are making headlines in today’s IT world. One is machine-to-machine (M2M) processes, which focuses on connecting manufacturing devices and equipment in a physical production space, and the internet of things (IoT), a much broader term for a new reality where nearly everything we use has a chip inside it connecting it to the global internet.

Obviously, the internet of things is much more attention-grabbing and popular because of its broad, nearly infinite set of applications. Machine-to-machine technology is still mostly talked about in trade journals and in rooms where executives figure out how to improve industry processes. (To learn about IoT security, check out 10 Steps to Strengthen Your IoT Security.)

With that in mind, M2M and IoT have some key similarities, as well as some important differences. Both will play major roles in the development of device connectivity services moving forward. Specifically, they will each have an impact on how mobile apps, those ubiquitous carriers of wireless functionality, are developed.

What Is M2M and How Will It Affect Mobile Apps?

The idea of machine-to-machine communications is built around making manufacturing processes and assemblies smarter by doing more with the machines and pieces of equipment that help with production or monitoring on an assembly line or elsewhere in industry.

This method of industrial control has been around for a while, and although it’s experiencing quite a bit of innovation, in many ways it lags behind what the internet of things is doing, simply because its applications are less broad.

“While it’s not clear who popularized the acronym, the roots of M2M communication date back as far as the early 1970s, when Theodore Paraskevakos invented and patented ‘an apparatus for use in a telephone system’ responsible for ‘automatically transmitting information from a calling telephone to a called telephone.’” writes Brian Ray at LinkLabs, describing M2M’s origins. “In other words, Paraskevakos invented the first Caller ID.”

Machine to machine has often been seen to utilize the control plane of the network, where routing tables and other tools address network topology, rather than classically sending along bits of internet-connected data. The use of programmable logic controllers, or PLC, in industry is an example of this.

So what does this mean for mobile apps? Well, in industrial settings, M2M will be a guiding design metric for all of those apps that have users tapping, typing and texting equipment, facilities or environmental controls. If you have a clean room app, where blowers and heaters and other equipment will have to work in automated tandem, M2M will likely apply.

What Is the Internet of Things and How Will It Affect Mobile Apps?

IoT is much newer – but there’s also a key difference between M2M and internet of things connectivity. The internet of things works through the connected global internet over IP protocols in the data plane of a network. (Learn about what it takes to work with the IoT in Job Role: IoT Solutions Architect.)

On the IoT side, it’s harder to collectively describe how this technology works. The “internet of things” is really a broad catch-all term. What is the internet of things? Some people talk about OEM manufacturers and how companies want to embed internet connectivity into manufactured devices. Think of your smart refrigerator, smartwatch, smart toaster or smart dishwasher. Also, think about your Fitbit and all of the different wearables that come connected to the IoT.

Most of those IoT items are not related to industrial or manufacturing processes. They’re consumer goods, or items that help with government or business administration. So the big dividing line is that while machine-to-machine technologies connect the machines that make the machines, IoT connects the products of those assembly lines and generally builds a more connected world.

The IoT is going to help us to unlock tremendous power in terms of consumer mobile apps. All of these apps that used to work through smartphones are going to be able to network with smart refrigerators, dishwashers, etc. Part of this massive innovation will lead to “seamless device following” where that data tracks a user’s physical movement to offer more customized results.

What's in Store with M2M and IoT?

In the future, we can expect that both M2M and IoT are going to continue to innovate. We can also expect that M2M is going to move toward an IoT model – because that makes these systems more versatile.

Classically, M2M systems were not often internet-connected. They were very isolated and walled off from the global internet, and as a result, they were somewhat ossified. Companies can talk about security concerns, but as we see all of these other processes moving toward the global internet, there’s really no reason why M2M wouldn’t go along.

There’s another key trend that we’re likely to see, particularly in M2M technologies. That’s the decoupling of the control plane from the data plane by utilizing software-defined networking approaches. Software-defined networking takes the control from the hardware and puts it in a software component on its own, so that the networks of the future can operate with more transparency and flexibility.

For instance, think about a wastewater treatment plant that uses specific M2M workflows from a proprietary vendor to manage grinder pumps, treatment stations and all sorts of other equipment and assemblies. The plant operators may be happy with their M2M infrastructure – but as time goes on, public planners will evaluate what’s available and probably gravitate toward an IoT model that makes it easier to come in and change equipment processes as needed. If, on the other hand, a company sticks with specific M2M technologies, those technologies will get smarter and more automated to allow machines to do more. With sensor fusion and either modern M2M or IoT, new factory machines will be able to spot defects in products. They’ll be able to move items according to very specific needs. They’ll probably be able to manage inventories and even control facilities environments in very particular ways, all without human intervention. Our machines are getting smarter – and how we handle that evolution will be a defining characteristic of tomorrow’s business world.

Again, M2M and IoT will both inform mobile apps, in their respective ways. M2M will move the mobile app in enterprise facilities use cases, and IoT will move it in most consumer-facing cases. Look for both of these trends to happen rather quickly as new connective technologies come online.