The concept of the Internet of Things isn’t new. The idea of an interconnected network of intelligent devices was first developed way back in the late 1990’s at the Auto-ID Center at MIT.
The thinking was that since people are the most problematic part of any process, let’s take them away and have devices communicate seamlessly, without humans messing things up. One of the first applications looked at was supply chain automation, using RFID and funding was provided by organizations such as Wal-Mart, the UCC (now GS1), Proctor & Gamble and HP.
We saw some results of this in the Wal-Mart RFID mandate, attempting to free the supply chain from the restraints of manual barcode scanning by using RFID sensors at strategic places in distribution centers.
Other applications that came out of this research include the Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) that are beginning to become more common.
While these kinds of application can certainly be very useful, the original idea of a global network of interconnect devices doesn’t seem to have made a lot of headway.
There are some companies however that remain committed to the Internet of Things concept and one is our partner, Zebra Technologies. See this recent comment on All Things D by Anders Gustafsson, the CEO of Zebra for example.
Zebra was an early adopter in the RFID business and acquired a number of businesses that enabled it to set up a new division based on Location Solutions.
The barcode printing side of Zebra has also been taking the Internet of Things seriously. I was at the Zebra partner conference a while ago and the Internet of Things was mentioned frequently as something that could drive new business for Zebra’s printers. At the time, no specific solutions seemed to be in place and everything seemed just a little vague.
Fast forward to the spring of 2013 and things are looking clearer!
Zebra has recently launched a new software ecosystem – Link-OS that comes with a number of features that will allow a Zebra printer to easily communicate with other devices. Obviously if printers are to operate in an Internet of Things environment, this will be a prerequisite.
Of this is all very well, but saying a printer is “Internet of Things Ready” is a little like those RFID Ready models we used to buy years ago, nice but not much help today.
So for today, the fact that Link-OS allows Zebra’s printers to be connected to point of sale systems, smart devices such as Apple or Android phones and cloud computing systems means that new printers equipped with Link-OS make a lot of sense for businesses right now. Indeed, with the number of iOS and Android tables being used for check-out in retail stores these day, Link-OS could probably have been worthwhile just for this.
Over the last few years, I’ve been critical of label printer manufacturers for their lack of innovation. I think manufacturers (and resellers, such as ourselves) have to accept the fact that barcode label printers have become commodity products with very little differentiation between brands and no scope of any radical changes in the foreseeable future (I hope I’m wrong about this part!).
Zebra’s approach with Link-OS, of allowing the same printer to fit more easily into the type of data systems that customers are using (or likely to use in the near future) is certainly one way of getting an edge on the competition.
So far Link-OS is showing up in new mobile printer models, as well as the ZT200 stationary printer series. Seems a reasonable assumption that just about every printer model will have Link-OS embedded at some point.
Link-OS has several apps already, with more promised in future updates:
- Cloud ready Link-OS device firmware installed in printers or can be downloaded
- Link-OS SDK – Software Development Kit to create custom apps
- Print Touch – Uses NFC for pairing to Android devices and launching apps
- Cloud Connect – Connects to the Cloud securely and directly
- Print Station App – Printing from Android devices such as phones or tablets
- AirWatch Connector plugin – Seamless device management
Not bad for version 1.0!
The Internet of Things concept? Hmm, let’s see what happens over the next few years!
Want to learn more about Zebra’s new Link-OS idea? No worries, there is a nice Datasheet with details. Looking for help on making your labeling operations work better for you? That’s what we do – give me a call at 603-598-1553 or use the contact form on this site.