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October 5, 2009

Devicescape Adds Seamless Wi-Fi Access Service, Mapping

Handheld makers can turn to Devicescape for seamless login, access maps, hotspot aggregation: Devicescape is updating its Easy Wi-Fi system to offer equipment makers an all-in-one deal to consumers. Buy a camera, for instance, and the device comes with lifetime worldwide hotspot access along with no-button seamless login. Capable devices will also gain maps showing available in- and out-of-network hotspots in proximity with an annotation for quality.

This move could change the market for attaching Wi-Fi access to mobile devices if manufacturers hop on board. Selling devices that have permanent, seamless access to hotspot networks would seem to command a premium, and reduce friction in using a device. Less friction means fewer product returns; premiums and fewer returns mean higher margins.

The consumer has the cost of Wi-Fi hidden in the device price, but considers the value of the device as an overall flat rate. It's a "tax," but one that's exposed in the purchase price.

This is a classic multiple-party win. Manufacturers sell more gear at higher prices. Hotspot venues gain more users who, not paying for service, pay for goods; and additional usage produces incremental revenue for hotspot operators. And the consumer wins by having devices that are simpler to use and keep them more connected, something that the success of cell phones and the iPod touch seem to confirm is desirable.

Devicescape has been pursuing its Easy Wi-Fi approach for a few years now, after morphing from a back-end software firm that sold embedded Wi-Fi software for PDAs and other devices. Easy Wi-Fi combines software embedded or installed in a device--typically a portable device--with an account at the firm's Web site that manages which home, office, free, and commercial networks you have credentials for. Logins to known networks are automatic. (The Web account has become increasingly optional, but it's still a great tool when you have credentials for multiple networks.)

This latest transition turns Easy Wi-Fi into a very specific form of hotspot aggregator: only for equipment makers. Unlike Boingo Wireless or iPass, Devicescape won't have a customer-facing access plan. Rather, manufacturers will pay the firm per-device fees that cover unlimited eternal hotspot use by equipment purchasers.

The firm's CEO, Dave Fraser, said, "It's obvious that there's a big attraction for putting Wi-Fi into devices, whether it's netbooks, new types of consumer electronics, like media players or ebook readers," and so on. But device makers have a challenge.

Fraser said companies could "ship the device with service included, which is theoretically a great experience for the consumer, because it just works," but that's "very expensive for them." Nintendo, Kodak, and a few camera makers all included free access for a limited time to hotspot networks (Nintendo partnered with Wayport in the U.S.; Kodak and others with T-Mobile).

Those deals all expired, and new devices haven't been shipped with bundles; the exception is Eye-Fi, which offers yearly rates for Wayport hotspot access, bundling the first year in with some memory cards. Amazon's Kindle includes free Sprint 3G access, but the bookseller clearly pays a fee to Sprint for each book or media item downloaded.

Fraser noted also, that even with bundles, consumers are typically limited to the country in which a device was purchased, which doesn't conform to modern travel plans.

The second option is to "leave it up to the end user" to configure and figure out. Again, Eye-Fi is the only firm that makes mobile equipment that's easy to configure for multiple networks from a desktop computer with a keyboard. Apple gets around this with the iPhone OS 3 software by managing some hotspot connections that require a button to be clicked or a certain kind of login.

I've tested a ton of Wi-Fi-enabled mobile devices, and the single most irritating part of using them is navigating admission to a hotspot, even one that you're already paying a monthly fee to use.

As I've long discussed on this site, devices without Web browsers can't connect to most free networks, because most free networks have some kind of usage policy acceptance (a link, checkbox, and/or button), or even an account to use. That means that most of the hotspots people would want to use with a mobile device are off limits. (Fraser said a survey revealed 54 percent of Devicescape's membership base "will only ever use Wi-Fi if it's free.")

Until now, Easy Wi-Fi's proposition was to insert itself at the "leave it up to the end user" phase, offering software for Windows and Mac OS X, as well as smartphones and a few other devices that allow third-party software to be installed.

Boingo Wireless tried to fill this hole in part by offering its software for integration with third parties and manufacturers. Skype is probably the highest-profile partner, with a per-minute hotspot rate (that's astoundingly high at $0.19/min.) available at present only to Mac OS X Skype users.

This is where Devicescape is attempting to step in. Added to the connection part, Devicescape will provide features to find hotspots, and a global access plan.

Fraser said, "We're offering this package at an economics that a device manufacturer should easily be able to ship lifetime access products."

He noted that Devicescape currently manages 400,000 session connections per day across all users and platforms, and this has allowed them to capture a massive amount of data about hotspots available around the world--2m access points of all kinds, which the company categorizes.

Fraser said the company scores a hotspot based on connection quality, signal strength (which obviously varies enormously), bandwidth, and the number of people who connect over time. Weighted into that are values from the most recent connections, too.

The hotspot's score is represented on a map as a blue pin with no signal waves up to three signal waves (3 on each side). The no-wave pins are from locations about which not enough information has yet been collected.

Fraser said the firm sweeps in any open access point, as well as commercial networks (which are marked with red pins). The company then attempts to figure out whether a location is intended to be accessible or not. Secured base stations aren't listed, and the firm tends to remove those in what it analyzes are residential neighborhoods. (Fraser said it's quite obvious in analyzing density what's a residential neighborhood and what's not.)

"We have an innocent-until-proven-guilty model: if we see an open access point, or a free network, we assume that it's meant to be shared until we're told otherwise," Fraser said. The company will remove any location on request. In years past, I'd have disagreed with this policy, but it's clear from my travels in the last year that a vanishingly small number of access points available from a public street or in trafficked areas that have no protection are intended to be private.

Fraser also notes--and I agree--that there's no definitive database of networks that are intended to be free and open; JiWire has a large database, but (despite a multi-year effort) it's not exhaustive since it's network-operator reported, and it doesn't show excluded access points.

Fraser said that of 2m scanned access points so far worldwide, only 100,000 meet Devicescape's criteria for reliable quality that they would offer to its customers.

As with Skyhook Wireless's method of capturing data from end users who employ its Wi-Fi positioning system to supplement wardriving, Devicescape will rely nearly solely on automatically provided data from users. "Every user ends up reinforcing and allowing us to grow the network," Fraser said.

The mapping software will be available on smartphones and other devices with the ability to display and navigate a map; the company's Web site will offer the map directly starting 20-Oct-2009.

Fraser wouldn't disclose which for-fee networks are partners, only noting that the firm had worked out terms that allow it to offer eternal access per device.

Because the software will keep the previous features, those with access to AT&T or T-Mobile or any other commercial network will be able to overlay that access into their account as well.

"We don't want to ever charge for premium access, but we do see ourselves as being an onramp," Fraser said.

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