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Now the Smart Grid Wants to Lure Developers

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Could we see an apps store for smart meters take off in the future? SmartSynch, the company championing cellular smart meters, is trying it out with Qualcomm’s (s QCOM) Brew MP platform, hoping to entice utilities and third-party developers to build new applications to run everything from systems for prepay smart meters and home energy management to electric vehicle charging and solar panel monitoring.

Under the partnership announced Wednesday at the DistribuTech conference in San Diego, SmartSynch will leverage Qualcomm’s Brew MP platform to develop smart grid apps in-house as well as welcome third-party developers. Those apps could run on the smart meter modules using Qualcomm’s 3G chips that SmartSynch intends to have on the market later this year.

Meters that use cellular networks and are already in the field could have those apps downloaded over the air, Campbell McCool, SmartSynch’s chief marketing officer, said in an interview. Most smart meter networks don’t use cellular, but use lower-bandwidth (and thus, cheaper) networks owned and operated by utilities, which might be hard-pressed to support that kind of functionality.

SmartSynch has already worked with prepay meter technology maker PayGo on the first iteration of such apps, in the form of a prepay meter platform the company launched last week. But in the future, McCool said, “there are apps that we’ve never thought of that these app designers will come forward with and say, look at this.”

“This is the smart grid that everyone’s been talking about, when applications like those offered in a consumer environment will start being offered to households by utilities,” he said.

The big question is, can SmartSynch build enough critical mass to get third parties interested in building those apps? Sure, the apps market for the iPhone ( s aapl) and Android (s goog) are going gangbusters, but they’re building for a market of hundreds of millions of cell phone users.

SmartSynch has a lot of meters installed at commercial and industrial sites, with 140 utilities, and delivering apps to them is part of its plan, McCool noted. It’s quite possible that utilities might turn to the Brew MP platform to build apps for such functions as demand response, solar panel monitoring and electric vehicle charging at a lower cost than they’d take on by doing it under their own power.

Whether they’ll choose to make the meter the repository of that functionality or choose software and equipment from big vendors in the field remains an open question. Brew is also an aging platform for feature phones, so it won’t likely capture the hearts and minds of young up and coming developers.

What about the big residential consumer market? SmartSynch’s residential deployments are fairly sparse to date, including a 10,000-home trial with AT&T (s T) and Texas New Mexico Power set to expand to 231,000 meters in the next five years. The Jackson, Miss.-based company also has partnerships with Verizon (s VZ) and Sprint (s S), but has yet to announce major residential deployments. Verizon Wireless and Qualcomm announced a big machine-to-machine (M2M) partnership in 2009 that included smart grid plans, but hasn’t made much news since then.

In other words, SmartSynch and Qualcomm have yet to prove that a business model that’s worked well for the smartphone market will translate to the smart grid. Still, it’s an interesting attempt to open up the smart grid world to a new universe of participants. The proof, of course, will come when the two companies start announcing apps for the new platform — stay tuned.

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Image courtesy of Jontintinjordan via Creative Commons license.

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