- 6:30 AM
Ever used one of those Burger King soda fountains that lets you create your own drink? It’s actually the brainchild of the Coca-Cola company, and it’s connected to the internet.
They’re known as Freestyle machines. You’ll find more than 2,000 of them inside the world’s Burger Kings, and many other restaurants and movie theaters throughout the United States and the United Kingdom have them as well. They’re all connected to the internet, so that Coca-Cola can track what drinks people are making and how often.
That’s one reason Coca-Cola now owns 16 million unique network identifiers usually reserved for Wi-Fi cards and other networking equipment. This week, many people were surprised to learn that a soda company controls that many network IDs, with the geeks at Slashdot, a popular online hangout for techies, launching an epic discussion about what the company would do with all those addresses. But we already know a bit about Coke’s plans, and as we approach “The Internet of Things,” the fact of the matter is that this sort of network ID grab is par for the course.
Coca-Cola’s network ID stash isn’t that unusual, according to John Matherly, the man behind Shodan, a search engine for The Internet of Things — the ever-growing array of devices that tap into our global network. First off, Coca-Cola has owned these identifiers since at least 2010. And while 16 million may sound like a lot, it’s actually the smallest number of these unique identifiers you can reserve at one time.
Coca-Colla did not respond to a request for an interview about its Internet of Thing ambitions. But in all likelihood, these addresses are already being used in the company’s Freestyle machines as well as the internet-connected vending machines it’s testing in Texas. That said, the decision to secure a block of addresses en masse may hint at even larger online ambitions for the company.
All network cards have these unique identifiers, referred to as a “media access control address,” or MAC address. These are separate from IP addresses assigned by internet service providers. A device’s MAC address will be the same on any network, regardless of the IP address. If you use your laptop on your wireless network at home and then use it at on a wireless network at a coffee shop, your MAC address will remain the same but your IP address will change. In that sense, a MAC address is more like a virtual serial number than a network address.
An organization called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Incorporated, or IEEE, manages MAC address registration. These identifiers are usually reserved by companies that sell networking cards and equipment. Because of how identifiers are generated, companies that want to reserve a block of addresses must do so in sets of 16 million, as Matherly explains.
That’s not a lot for a company like Cisco, which sells millions of network devices each year. But for companies like Coca-Cola, it may be more than they need. That said, the mere decision grab them by the block — as opposed to securing them one-by-one — shows Coke is serious about this internet thing. “What’s more interesting to me is that they decided to get their own MAC address range,” Matherly says. “This could’ve been a prudent move by an engineer to guarantee their devices a unique range of identifiers in the future, or it’s part of a larger strategy to make their infrastructure — including vending machines — more connected.”
In addition to the Freestyle machines, Coca-Cola has been testing 200 web-connected vending machines in the Austin, Texas area and plans to roll out tens of thousands more, according toBloomberg Businessweek.
The killer feature of a web-connected vending machine is the ability to process credit cards and mobile payments. But the Freestyle machines and the smart vending machines also open a new frontier in collecting real-time data about customer behavior. Coca-Cola could greatly simplify logistics, asBusinessweek points out, by making it possible to know when to restock a machine and how much inventory each one needs, without having to send a truck to each one first.
That only scratches the surface, Matherly says. Because the machines use digital displays, Coca-Cola could do the same type of A/B testing that marketers and political campaigners do on websites and advertisements. For example, the company could determine which arrangements of drinks lead to the most sales, and it could customize the displays on each individual machine depending on what works best for its customers.
It’s unlikely that Coca-Cola will burn through all 16 million MAC addresses with vending machines and soda fountains alone. There are only about 6 to 7 million vending machines total in the entire United States, according to a spokesperson at USA Technologies, a company that sells payment processing systems for vending machines and other retailers. There’s probably roughly twice that number in the entire world.
That means the company’s could take its ambitions even further.