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Microsoft signs three-year deal with Wayport for old and new Zune owners alike: This is a nice win for Zune users, Wayport, and McDonald's, each in their own way, and it's something Microsoft can simply write off as useful marketing--and a way to get people to try the latest models of their music player, which are being released on 16-September.
The Zune doesn't include a Web browser or any Internet focused features; it's not an iPod touch. But you can use Wi-Fi to browse the Zune Marketplace for music and games, and download new songs in programmed channels, music selections created by a variety of artists and stations. Zune offers both music purchases and a subscription for unlimited music listening. The new models range from $149 for an 8 GB flash model to $249 for a 120 GB hard drive-based player.
The feature I'm most interested in is Buy from FM, which leverages the built-in FM tuner and very low-bandwidth data that's already pushed over analog AM/FM. (See my write-up of this feature from last week.) With Buy from FM, when you're listening to radio stations that participate, you'll be able to click a button and buy the song you're listening to if you're connected to a Wi-Fi network. Zune Pass subscribers can download the song at no additional charge. If there's no Wi-Fi network, the song download or purchase is queued.
Wayport's marketing head Dan Lowden said, "Obviously, it's cool because folks who already own a Zune device and just need to do an upgrade will be able to use this just as with any of the new Zune devices that they start selling as soon as possible." (Microsoft may have a little accounting work to do: Sarbanes-Oxley doesn't let you enhance a product in the market without a fee if you realize the revenue all at once.)
The benefit for Wayport is to have yet another hefty but undisclosed fixed sum underlying its fixed infrastructure costs. In the past, Wayport has done deals with Nintendo, ZipIt, and Eye-Fi to allow all devices in a category unlimited access at McDonald's locations. McDonald's obviously gets more customers, or existing customers who spend more time or visit more frequently.
A partnership with a hotspot operator means that Microsoft doesn't have to provide tools and their users endure frustration in joining a network. "We're experts enabling one click to get this network connected," Lowden said. He noted that Wayport has opened test labs to work with manufacturers in Japan, San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle. "We're working with these guys from day 1 to make sure it's one click to get connected," he said. I'd also note that San Diego happens to be where Qualcomm's headquarters are located, not that Lowden gave me any tip-off there.
And I have to just say: burn, burn, burn on Apple. Despite Apple partnership with AT&T, which relies on Wayport to operate the AT&T-branded hotspot network and resells access to Wayport's own network, iPhone and iPod touch users have no inclusive Wi-Fi service. AT&T slipped a few times and ostensibly opened up their network or released details that iPhone users would gain free hotspot access--like all AT&T's fiber and all its standard and premium DSL customers.
As Wi-Fi becomes an expected part of any handheld gadget, the venues in which Wi-Fi is used multiply beyond cafes and hotels. Lifestyle locations--which could be clothing stores, nightclubs, ski resorts, and the tops of mountains suddenly become places where people want the same kind of access they have at home. Ultima thule is already unwired.
Yes, I touched an iPhone 3G: At Apple's big developer event kickoff on Monday, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 3G. Later that day, in a briefing, I was able to handle and use the phone briefly. It's lovely. But its inclusion of 3G service coupled with Wi-Fi, as well as a real GPS chip coupled with assistive cell-tower triangulation and Wi-Fi network location approximation means that you have a device that might fairly replace a computer for many purposes. I've had an iPhone with 2G (EDGE) service since its release, and I recently took a two-day trip with my older son leaving my computer behind. (I was able to use a relative's machine, but only did so to be able to type email more efficiently.) If Apple would simply allow the use of the Bluetooth HID profile (human interface devices) for keyboard and mouse support, a compact foldable keyboard would be the only accessory I would need.
Note that the iPhone 2G and 3G aren't more powerful than other, similar devices. Symbian platform devices from Nokia and others are in notably short supply in the US, but come in great quantities and varieties elsewhere, and have some pretty impressive computational power; Nokia owns nearly 50 percent of the worldwide smartphone market. Likewise, you can run desktop-to-mobile programs under Windows Mobile that let you have real computer applications repackaged for better use in the smaller form.
But that's not what the iPhone is about. It's a non-compromise device, even when a little compromise might help. The lack of a touch-typist keyboard hinders data entry, but it doesn't restrict any other purpose of the device. The inclusion of those keyboards is a huge compromise for all its competitors, even though it allows those competitors to act more like little computers.
And that's where it's odd for me. The iPhone is much more like a full-blown computer than any smartphone I've used. It might be the superior browser, and the fact that a single company and design vision has ensured the maximum CPU is available for each current task, and that the interface and actions are nearly always consistent across every piece of software. Contrast that with many smartphones that don't just have ugly interfaces, crippled Web browsers, and varying input methods, but also require you to learn a different approach to using nearly every different piece of software on the phone.
Apple isn't about to kill its competitors, but they are providing an odd amount of support for killing a laptop.
On a slightly tangential front, Apple CEO Steve Jobs claim that their phone's 3G speed was nearly that of Wi-Fi requires some explanation. Jobs needed a footnote: "compared to typical Wi-Fi hotspots that have about 1.5 Mbps of downstream backhaul." The iPhone is clearly processor limited for how fast it can render Web pages and handle network processing. If you stick an iPhone on a 10 Mbps-backed network via Wi-Fi, the browsing experience isn't very different than on a 1.5 Mbps-backed Wi-Fi hotspot, in my experience with the current phone.
So clearly, there's more optimization to be done and more hardware upgrades to come in order to have a mobile device that can live up to whatever network it generally works on. For the iPhone 3G, Wi-Fi is an alternative, but it's clearly not intended as a superior alternative.
Devicescape has its first operator partner for its seamless login system for mobile devices and laptops: Devicescape's approach is to remove the necessity for a device's owner to have to sign in: no tedious entry (and memorization) of account details for your camera, iPhone, or what have you to get online. The operator deal puts their software front and center in the plans of the carrier as it rolls equipment and services out to its customers, driving more use in this case of the 8,000 hotspots offered across Europe by DT. Reducing friction in getting a device on a network almost by necessity increases a network's use. The company also announced its operator service.
Devicescape recently released its 2.0 software--see "Devicescape Releases New Connection Software: No Computer Required to Configure, Gain Hotspot Access," 2008-02-05--which allows properly equipped devices to connect to a hotspot network without any prior configuration or Web site account setup.
PC Magazine identifies 10 "wacky" Wi-Fi products, although only a few are truly offbeat: The magazine rounds up items like the Nabaztag from Violet, the Wi-Fi pen, and a Wi-Fi detecting T-shirt and watch. I suppose these are more "ways to spend your cash that aren't truly useful, even though they might be fun." They also include the Eye-Fi, eStarling's picture frame, and a Wi-Fi-enabled remote control from Acoustic Research that are all a bit more practical--still about entertainment, but they actually do something.
David Pogue reviews several of the latest digital picture frames at the New York Times: I have frankly avoided reporting much on digital picture frames, even those with wireless, because so many of them seemed far too expensive for their simple function of automating a rotating display of photos. Product announcements seem to come weekly, which means that a lot of people are buying these for their parents and grandparents, loading them with photos, and then the same pictures display for the next year until the relative takes it down and claims it "broke."
Pogue makes it clear that I'm not far off in avoiding writing about these frames. He likes the Kodak EasyShare EX1011 at 10 inches (diagonal), which supports Wi-Fi, but not Mac OS X, and which can link up to Kodak Gallery to pull in new photos over the Internet from galleries you update from wherever. That really does make it appropriate for computer illiterate relatives. Or those who just don't want to monkey around. The 800 by 480 pixel resolution is also quite reasonable for that size of display. Pogue notes that the dimensions, however, put it into a widescreen orientation inappropriate for most digital photographs.
At $250, though, that's a hefty gift and I find hard to swallow despite the screen size and inclusion of Wi-Fi.
Pogue also likes the much cheaper PanDigital Wi-Fi Picture Frame ($150, 8 inches) has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi but can't use Wi-Fi to grab locally hosted photos, just from Picasa.
He has kind words for the SmartParts SP8PRT ($280, 8 inches) frame shipping in March that has no Wi-Fi but can print photos through a built-in, hidden dye-sublimation printer. I find the idea a little funky: why print from a picture frame that you have to load with photos from a computer? It seems like you'd want Wi-Fi most of all in this kind of device to send pictures to others, and they could make prints of photos they like.
Three others, he generally excoriates. The Parrot DF7200: "the resolution is so coarse...it's not a big improvement over your cellphone screen." The eStarling second attempt: "...even though this frame is much better than its disastrous first model last year, it’s still flakier than a croissant." Momento 100: "Photos from the Web arrive on the frame at half size, bizarrely floating in the center surrounded by fat black margins."
There's a lengthy comparison chart also online.
Canary Wireless hits another homer with latest Digital Hotspotter: About three and four years ago, the market became suddenly glutted with a variety of compact Wi-Fi detectors: relatively inexpensive devices designed to give you a snapshot of the radio frequency environment around you in the more common Wi-Fi band (2.4 gigahertz). Trouble is, most of them either worked poorly or provided too little information.
The original Digital Hotspotter and a combination detector/adapter from Zyxel were my two favorite devices for the amount of information they provided. A detector, to be useful, must show enough network information that it prevents you from having to open up a laptop; or enough information to help you find a stronger signal or troubleshoot what's wrong with a network.
The Digital Hotspotter (model HS-20, $59.95, on sale 15-Feb-08) really does shine, partly because it now includes support for detecting 802.11n networks, and reveals the network's top speed based on packets it's sniffing. The device has three buttons now instead of one, all along one side. The top button is the power button: hold it down to turn it on or turn it off; press it while it's on to rescan the environment. Previous and next buttons let you scan through the available networks. See this YouTube video I shot for a live demonstration.
The display now shows the network name, whether it's secured, its form of encryption, the type of 802.11 network (B, G, or N), the top speed based on it's network settings, and the channel on which it's operating. My only real complaint with the device is that it turns off its backlighting a little too quickly while I'm still trying to read the scrolling information about network speed and other parameters.
The price is a little high for the casual user, but a road warrior, network administrator, or those desiring to find open and free networks should find this a bargain.
(For the historical record, I reviewed the SmartID WFS-1 in 2004, a device with a single button and a few LEDs, which showed all 2.4 GHz activity; the Chrysalis WiFi Seeker, which looked just for 802.11b/g, showing activity with LEDs, in early 2004; the first Canary Wireless Digital Hotspotter, which had no back/forth buttons, but had an LCD to show network status, in late 2004; and Zyxel's combination USB Wi-Fi adapter and LCD display network detector in 2005.)
Devicescape released version 2 of their connection software designed for mobile devices today, making the initial setup even more frictionless: Devicescape Connect allows mobile devices to log into hotspot and home networks without the user entering a single password or using a micro-browser to navigate through usage agreements. The latest revision allows a mobile device to sign up for Devicescape's service without first setting up an account on Devicescape's servers. This dramatically reduces the overhead for someone wanting to connect immediately to Wi-Fi networks.
Company head Dave Fraser said in an interview yesterday, "Without registering or going to our Web site or anything, as soon as you install the client, or power on a device with the client in it, you get immediate access to any hotspot we can get you into." Fraser noted that's any of the tens of thousands of free hotspots that are part of their system now, including Google in Mountain View or McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. Fraser said, "There's lots and lots of them in our database now. We'll automate those. You don't have to plan in advance, and register, and populate My Wi-Fi," the part of a My Devicescape account in which you list networks you're a member of.
Devicescape currently has software available for Mac OS X and Windows, as well as certain Nokia phones and tablets, Windows Mobile, and jailbroken iPhones and iPod touches (iPods touch?). Prior to its current incarnation, the company focused exclusively on providing Wi-Fi and networking software for mobile devices, and that's still a big chunk of their business; this means we can expect to see a host of devices with Devicescape software built in, ready to go. The company had no announcements about built-in device support today, however.
I hope manufacturers will be delighted with this new release, because it means that someone who buys a piece of Wi-Fi-equipped hardware can immediately use it on an open or free network, or on a hotspot network for which they are a member, such as T-Mobile HotSpot or AT&T's Wi-Fi network. CEO Fraser said, "A manufacturer can ship the device, and if you switch it on for the first time in Starbucks, it'll say, 'hey, do you have a user name and password on this device?'" (Devicescape said they set a goal to be set up to work with 100 hotspot networks by the end of 2007; instead, they hit 1,000.)
That's a far cry from my usual experience with handheld devices that have Wi-Fi, where I'm tediously entering data in a micro-browser, if it's even usable, or unable to get past an Accept button that I can't see because the device lacks any browser at all. Even the iPhone's superior Mobile Safari browser doesn't store passwords or form field entries, which means re-entering the same data every time, and it doesn't work consistently on free networks that require a button or box to be checked to accept terms. (It's getting better; it was far worse when the iPhone was first released, but Apple and hotspot operators are clearly improving compatibility with one another's offerings.)
It's a great demo in, say, a camera store or a phone store, where with a store network all ready to go, a salesperson could help the buyer unpack their new gadget, fire it up, show them how to enable Devicescape, and then get on the Internet. That's a pretty powerful sales tool.
The 2.0 software has a feature that I expect will provoke criticism: By default, a device will automatically look for all unsecured networks in its vicinity if no preferred hotspot is found, and then connect to each open network and try to reach the Internet. In some states and countries, I believe this could constitute unauthorized use of computer networks; passively scanning doesn't typically ring any legal bells. In Germany and Singapore, I believe the law is quite clear: without advance permission, any access is infringing. I think it's a bad idea for this feature to be turned on by default for that reason regardless of its positive aspects.
Fraser noted, "You can switch it off, if you don't like it, because it can be controversial." They expect to leave this feature on only for a certain period of time as they gather more information about the open networks out in the wild, and work out a way to allow folks with intentionally open networks to register with them or signal their openness. In the next release, Fraser said, "You'll have the option of saying connect me only to intentionally open unsecured networks."
Fraser said that there are benefits to register on the Web site after initially using a device. If you have multiple Wi-Fi devices, including computers that use their connection software, you can consolidate it all into a single account. The Web site is necessary for registering personal networks that use encryption keys, and for using their buddy network to allow other people access to your networks or gain access to theirs without sharing encryption keys.
But the frictionless process is designed to let people who otherwise won't be paying for Wi-Fi to gain immediate access to free locations, or to use bundled services that their operator--like AT&T--might offer. Fraser said, "We wanted something that was going to work for the majority of people out there for which Wi-Fi is really a free or bundled thing."
The software isn't yet set up to serve ads to users in exchange for access, something that's proving efficacious in some networks, and has gained some traction through a recent deal between JiWire and Boingo Wireless that gives iPhone and iPod touch users free access in many airports in exchange for viewing ads. (Disclosure: I own a small number of shares in privately held JiWire.)
Devicescape also announced a change in their developer licensing terms to make their software easier for potential partners and free software developers to use. The new license isn't open source, but they provide the source code at no cost, and deployment for non-commercial projects carries no fee.
The Sacramento Wi-Fi network is finally underway: Through $750,000 of equipment leasing from Intel and Cisco, the $1m pilot project will get going, and potentially proceed to completion. Azulstar, once the lead partner on the project, was unable to raise the $9m needed without proof of concept in place, apparently. I wondered at the time why Cisco, Intel, and IBM would be willing to let their eyes be blackened and not participate; now the project seems self-financed. The pilot buildout launches in February in downtown with a May completion date. Rates of up to 1 Mbps are ad-supported and free; $15 to $50 per month subscriptions are available for varying speeds. (I confirmed with the City of Sacramento that Azulstar is no longer involved with the project; the city's CIO said that Azulstar is no longer "listed on the partner list" that was provided by the consortium to the city.)
Cameras on San Francisco street corners deliver choppy videos: Money was invested, time spent, but the 68 cameras don't record video well enough to help in cases or bring people to justice. Nearly $1m has been spent. The cameras are wireless (not using Wi-Fi, I believe), but the real problem appears to be storage and configuration--and the fact that "surveillance cameras have delivered mixed results in studies of their effectiveness at decreasing violent crime."
AP rounds up three messaging appliances: Sony Mylo COM-2 (not really available yet, $300) has dramatically improved on its first model, the reporter says, seeing a few glitches in pre-release software, but having a much more favorable reaction than anyone did to the first Mylo. The article also looks at the Nokia N810 tablet ($480), which is a full-fledged computer with good, but not great, IM capabilities: Yahoo and AIM aren't supported out of the box, but require additional software. The Zipit Wireless Messenger 2 ($150, optional $5/mo for 1,500 incoming/1,500 outgoing SMS messages) gets a thumbs up, too.
Dash is accepting pre-orders for its $600 subscription-based navigation device with Internet connectivity: Using GPS for location and GPRS and Wi-Fi for connectivity, the Dash Express constantly updates traffic data from its own sources and other Dash devices--unclear on quite how. The Dash Express combines connected PDA features with mapping and navigation. The search is driven by Yahoo Local. You and others can email addresses straight to the device. Monthly fees are $10 with a two-year contract and $13 per month without one. The color screen is 480 by 272 pixels measuring 4.3 inches diagonally. Battery life is two hours but it comes with a car adapter, naturally.
The portable Wi-Fi instant messaging device will offer cheap text messaging (SMS), too: The Zipit Wireless Messenger 2 or Z2 will gain a monthly service plan that allows 1,500 incoming and 1,500 outgoing messages for $4.95. The service will launch in a free trial period Dec. 20, and run through Jan. 31, 2008. The monthly fees would start on Feb. 1. Z2 works with what they describe as "more than 20 cellular carriers," so one assumes that's all the major carriers in the U.S. The device also interoperates with AOL, MSN, and Yahoo IM services.
The Z2 uses Wi-Fi for connectivity, and through a deal with Wayport, has free access at 9,000 McDonald's locations in the U.S. that Wayport operates Wi-Fi at. The Zipit Web site is essentially unusable for adults, designed to appeal to kids with a form of brain damage that doesn't allow them to navigate using menus or simple selection, apparently. It costs $150 and there's free overnight shipping through Dec. 21.
After more than a year of providing hints at their capability, Eye-Fi has released their flagship product: a 2 GB Secure Digital flash card with built-in Wi-Fi for $100: The Eye-Fi Card connects over a Wi-Fi network using its own onboard processor to transfer images from the card to a computer or upload the photos to Eye-Fi's servers for further distribution. The camera has to be powered on within range of a Wi-Fi network; there's no other intervention needed.
The company has partnered with 17 major photo-sharing, photo-finishing, and social-networking services and sites to enable direct transfer to one or more of those services when pictures are uploaded, based on your choices.
The Eye-Fi is not a generic Wi-Fi adapter: that is, it doesn't magically add Wi-Fi capabilities to a digital camera. Rather, it's a separate computer that happens to live within an SD card and can access the same stored data that the digital camera can. I expect to review the unit in the next week or two.
In an interview with Jef Holove, Eye-Fi's chief executive, he explained that Eye-Fi had honed in on a very simple offering, with the potential to become more complicated later as the market dictated. He describes Eye-Fi as "a wireless memory card that lets you upload your photos," a concise summary.
The Eye-Fi's intent is to allow zero-effort uploading of photographs taken on a digital camera. I haven't seen anything close to this amount of simplicity, including in the consumer cameras that have Wi-Fi built-in from Nikon, Canon, and Kodak. Those cameras generally don't allow full-resolution Internet transfers of photos, and lock you into specific upload services, such as Kodak Gallery (renamed for the third time in a handful of years). Eye-Fi wanted to provide full-resolution uploads, no preferred service, and eliminate the effort in initiating or managing the transfer.
An Eye-Fi needs to be set up before it's used in a camera. The device comes with a small USB dock, and software for Windows and Mac OS X that can configure internal settings in the card. The software mostly exists to connect you with Eye-Fi's Web site, where you create an account, enter Wi-Fi network settings (including passwords), and enter or sign up for any of the 17 services you may use or belong to. Various settings are then installed on the Eye-Fi and it's ready to go.
Whenever you're within range of any of the networks you've configured, the Eye-Fi transfers any pictures you've taken since the last transfer. The camera isn't involved. Holove said that there are three modes that the card can work in for transfers: transfer to the host computer; transfer to Eye-Fi's servers directly; or transfer to Eye-Fi's servers and then download to the host computer.
The last option sounds a little confusing: why download photos again rather than transfer them over the local network? Holove explained that it would double the battery usage to transfer the images twice, so they opted to retrieve the images after upload rather than reduce the camera's charge.
Holove said that they estimate the card consumes about 5 to 10 percent more battery than a camera would use otherwise; they found their beta testers hardly noticed the power consumption due to the increased capacity of modern batteries and more energy-efficient camera designs. The Wi-Fi component, an Atheros AR6001, uses very little energy while idle.
If you choose to upload photos, Eye-Fi's servers automatically transfer the photos to the service you selected. You can register at all the services you regularly use, and then choose which single service gets the uploaded images when you're between uploading sessions. If individual photos size or resolution exceeds the maximum allowed by a given service, Eye-Fi's system resizes the image just for them. (I'd prefer Eye-Fi uploaded to one or more services at once, but that's not in line with their approach, which is "keep it simple at this stage.")
There's no option to downsample photos on upload to reduce the upload time, however. Holove said that in this first iteration, they wanted to appeal to what they found was a common sentiment among photographers they're aiming at: the desire to upload full-resolution images. Holove said "As storage for these [photo-sharing] companies becomes cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, it becomes more affordable for these companies to store higher res images."
The Eye-Fi is shipping initially as a 2 GB SD card because higher capacities require the use of SDHC (SD High Capacity), which isn't supported on many older and less expensive cameras. SDHC is required for 4 GB and higher memory cards, and Holove said that the firm "wanted to launch a product that would work with all the SD cameras out there."
Initial partners are dotPhoto, Facebook, Flickr, Fotki, Kodak Gallery, Phanfare, Photobucket, Picasa Web Albums, Sharpcast and Gallery, Shutterfly, SmugMug, Snapfish, TypePad, VOX, Wal-Mart, and Webshots.
Boingo announced that their compact Boingo Mobile client is now available for Nokia phones, tablets: The software, available now for E60 phones and handhelds like the N95 and in November for the N800 tablet, connects the devices to Boingo's worldwide network of tens of thousands of hotspots for $7.95 per month. The price includes Wi-Fi voice calls and Wi-Fi data used on these hotspots. As with the Devicescape deal announced last week, this doesn't put the software on the phones, but makes it simple for the Boingo-developed software to be found and installed on supported Nokia devices. (Boingo's laptop-enabled network has 100,000 hotspot; the mobile-enabled locations and pricing model requires more work and negotiation with operators as Boingo continues to build the mobile footprint.)
Christian Gunning, Boingo's head of marketing, said that while Nokia's S60 and N Series phones weren't well known in the U.S., that they were "widely available and widely successful" elsewhere. Subscribers typically pay the full cost for phones in Europe, and users aren't limited as to what they install on them. That means that VoIP over Wi-Fi isn't an unusual application, and Boingo can enable that by providing the network at a predictable monthly cost. The deal also allows Nokia's multimedia phones and tablets to access streaming and downloadable media over Wi-Fi at a much lower cost than with comparable laptop-oriented Wi-Fi deals, including Boingo's own U.S. and international unlimited plans ($22 and $39, respectively).
While Boingo put part of its software suite into open source licensing to allow their service to be ported to platforms that they wouldn't themselves have spent the time to develop under, the Nokia deal was in cooperation with the Finnish handset giant. In contrast, Belkin developed their Boingo add-on for the Skype phone they released last year on their own, and contracted with Boingo to allow retail Boingo customers to gain access to the aggregated network. (Manufacturers can choose to contract for users and keep part of the fees, but that requires minimum monthly fees paid to Boingo.)
I took the opportunity to talk to Gunning about the company's current strategy. Founded in 2001, they've been pursuing their aggregated network approach for nearly six years; I first wrote about them in Dec. 2001.
Gunning said that to ensure quality on their increasingly large and non-U.S. aggregated network, they contracted with a third party, Lionbridge to handle not just localization--customizing their applications and Web sites for other languages and countries--but also worldwide testing. "We contract with them literally to jump on planes and go from country to country to country with laptops and handheld devices and do quality testing on major networks around the world," Gunning said.
Boingo tried to handle this in house and on an ad hoc basis, but they couldn't achieve the level of quality from the platform partners, Gunning said. As I have explained to the many people over the years who have asked me how Boingo made money selling subscriptions at retail, Boingo is the private-label backend or hotspot component for products sold by Fiberlink, Verizon Business, and most recently, Alltel.
Through this testing, Gunning said that Boingo was able to help its hotspot partners to achieve better results, but also that they were able to remove a handful of locations from their directories that they couldn't guarantee consistent performance on. "We can monitor if there's a specific SSID or a specific venue ID that's consistently failing," said Gunning.
Because Boingo has been in a position to work with networks worldwide to improve their consistency, I asked Gunning where 802.1X--a standard network authentication method widely supported for enterprises--stood in terms of hotspots. "802.1X in hotspots would be a phenomenal boom for the end user in terms of security and safety," he said, but besides a handful of networks like KT in South Korea (which requires it), and T-Mobile (not a Boingo network partner outside its airports), and iBahn, there's not much uptake.
What Gunning did note, however, is that the Wireless Internet Service Provider (wISPr) standard developed at the Wi-Fi Alliance (and seemingly not available on their site) has proved an effective set of guidelines for hotspot operators in providing at least a basic level of compatibility. Boingo had to build dozens of authentication scripts in their early days, but now can use one of about five scripts that work with popular interpretations of the wISPr guidelines. (It's not a certified, tested standard, but a set of basic recommendations.)
On the financial front, Boingo remains privately held and close lipped. Gunning noted that Deloitte & Touche had recently given noted that Boingo was the No. 2 company in the Los Angeles area for growth over a five-year period. This gives us a glimpse into their revenue, as firms must have had over $50,000 in yearly revenue in 2002, and over $5m in annual revenue in 2006. The accounting firm privately checks out a firm's books to determine revenues and other factors.
Boingo was reported as having a 13,398-percent growth over that period, which means that assuming at least $50,000 in 2002, they have nearly $7m in revenue by 2007. It's more likely that they had over $50,000 revenue in 2002, and thus are probably above the $20m range now, including Concourse Communications revenue. That would represent something like a few tens of thousands of regular subscriptions and some hundreds of thousands of one-off purchases at airports. While Gunning wouldn't confirm a precise amount, he stated that it is well above that mark. Gunning also said that "we are cash flow positive; we have a sustainable business."
I noted Concourse just a moment ago, a 2006 acquisition by Boingo of an airport Wi-Fi provider and cellular network equipment operator. Concourse has agreements for service for a large percentage of the major airports in the U.S., including Detroit, Minneapolis, O'Hare, and Midway in the midwest, Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, and Nasvhille in the south, and JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia in the northeast. (On the cellular side, cellular operators contract with a central network builder - sometimes a cell operator, sometimes a third party like Concourse - which in turn pays fees to the airport authority.)
Gunning said that the acquisition was a way for Boingo to expand its retail identity while also gaining chits that would allow it to expand its networks. He noted that some unique network deals that the company assembled required reciprocal roaming: Boingo could include these networks in their aggregated footprint by also extending access to those operators' subscribers when they roamed to Concourse-managed airports. This has given Boingo some exclusivity over competing hotspot network components offered by firms like iPass.
Related to that, I asked Gunning if the evil twin problem at O'Hare and elsewhere was true or overblown. In this scenario, travelers see a network name called "Free Wi-Fi" or a variant when they check on available Wi-Fi. Some security researchers have checked and seen that these are ad hoc networks. Gunning confirmed that there is a virus or viruses in the wild that are tailored to advertise an ad hoc network, and then transmit various payloads, such as spam zombie software or other keyloggers, to any vulnerable computer that connects. It also "turns your machine into a free Wi-Fi hotspot broadcasting ad hoc machine to spread the virus," further propagating itself.
It's been interesting to follow the model that Boingo founder (and EarthLink founder) Sky Dayton promulgated back in 2001, that the goal was to fill pipes, not to build networks. Dayton saw a distinct difference between the two tasks, an unpopular view at the time as companies were started that tried to pursue retail brands for their particular small number of hotspots. While T-Mobile and a few other companies do still have a strong retail Wi-Fi association, frequent business travelers have tended to move towards a subscription model with whatever the best and most well traveled set of hotspots they have can cover, whether AT&T WiFi, T-Mobile, Boingo, iPass, or others.
Gunning echoed Dayton's words when he spoke about how the company views itself: "We're all about being a big, fat dumb pipe to do whatever you want."
I need to introduce a new concept into Wi-Fi access: not backhaul, but backside utility: That is, how useful is a Wi-Fi location if you can't sit down comfortably and without risk of expulsion? (An alternative construction might be an "assiness index," but that's too offensive for regular use.)
My essential problem with Fon is that there's no good way to determine how many of what they describe as nearly 200,000 Fonero locations are really hotspots rather than an antenna sticking out of a house or some inconvenient location. To me, a hotspot is a spot with high backside utility. If I can't sit down, potentially get electrical usage, but at least sling my bag somewhere, I can't work productively for long.
Making a phone call requires little backside utility. You can stand and walk around the pavement to make a call, often in inclement weather, as long as ambient noise isn't too high. But at 11 pm in a residential neighborhood, you're unlikely to make that phone call--or the police might be called.
In speaking recently to the BusinessWeek editor who wrote up the Fon/BT deal, I tried to explain how I debate Fon's count of 200,000 locations as comparable to 200,000 hotspots, because Fon doesn't have airports, convention centers, downtown hotzones, parks, or metro-scale networks. All of those vary among their backside utility, the captive-user potential, and the public-access-without-harassment possibility. But they're all large. Access across 1m sq ft of an airport isn't comparable to a sliver of use on a street in Barcelona outside someone's apartment.
Thus I was remiss in my discussion of the BT deal in mentioning that Fon could be a key improvement in BT's converged calling (unlicensed mobile access or UMA) service called Fusion. BT spun off its cell side, so in order to make Fusion work, they need as many minutes spent at home or at OpenZone hotspots to keep from burning up GSM minutes. If a good hunk of BT's wired DSL customers flip the Fon switch, then there is, in fact, a high probability that a Fusion user would see a dramatic improvement in how few minutes were fried via GSM. This reduces BT's cost and improves a Fusion subscriber's monthly bill, too, if they would otherwise have gone over their minutes' pool. They would likely see better coverage in areas with poor cell service, too.
So while I want to emphasize that backside utility and public use without harassment are two factors in how you might say whether a location is a hotspot or just lukewarm, applications are a critical component. If I need to look up a fact on my smartphone, and I can use Wi-Fi to do so via a Fonero's network, that's very high utility and I don't need to sit down or linger. If I want to spend 60 minutes reading email on a laptop, I need a seat.
Devicescape scores deal with world's largest handset maker to ease users' connections to Wi-Fi hotspots: Devicescape's middleware lets a user connect to a hotspot--their own or a public one--with very little fuss, using a single super-account that consolidates all other Wi-Fi and hotspot network passwords and accounts. Nokia has been inserting Wi-Fi into an ever-increasing array of devices, which makes Devicescape a perfect match. The deal between the two first puts Devicescape's Nokia-tailored software in a download area for the N95 smartphone and their tablet PC series that includes the N800.
The deal doesn't extend (yet) to cell phones that have Wi-Fi built in; that combination could have huge repercussions for the carriers, especially on phones that can support VoIP over Wi-Fi. Update: The N95 is a smartphone, despite Nokia's strange omission of any phone features in their description of the N95! (Devicescape also offers downloads from their site for E and N Series Nokia phones.)
Zunes will come in 4, 8, and 80 GB versions: Lots of changes, but the only real news is syncing of media over Wi-Fi. Podcasts can be synced, but not downloaded wirelessly. No wireless music store. New models ship in mid-November; existing 30 GB units will get software updates. They'll selling some DRM-free music (1m tracks). Pretty much walking in Apple's footsteps, not filling them.
Today's version 1.1.1 firmware update for the Apple iPhone turns on the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store: The store's name describes its limitations, recall. It's for Wi-Fi, not EDGE; it's music, not video. Within those limitations, the service is pretty grand. Those who bought the iPod touch a few days have already seen how it works, but this is my first exposure. The interface is just as nifty as the rest of the iPhone. (Apple is slick enough to have a well-produced and inoffensive video demonstration from Mr. iPhone, a very calm fellow who performed on the initial iPhone video demo. I hope he releases a sleep tape, too.)
You click the iTunes logo on the home screen of the iPhone, and--as long as you're connected to a Wi-Fi network--see a list of featured songs. You can browse by genre, look at top 10 lists by genre, or get to the heart of it by clicking Search. The Search screen unexpectedly shows a blank page with a search field at the top. Apple should improve the UI here to give some indication that something didn't just go wrong, which was my impression.
As you start typing in the search field, options are displayed immediately, a nice feature that relies on a Web 2.0-like mechanism, surely (it's very AJAXy). It also means that you avoid tediously typing, entering, retyping, correcting. If you get it wrong, you just deleted a character and re-enter, and see the new choices as you type.
The results are intelligently displayed, showing artists and album names. Select one, and you see the results sorted into Albums at the top and Songs below. Two albums are shown with a prompt to see more if there are; 25 songs are displayed, and a link to view another 25.
Tap a song, and a 30-second preview starts to play. Tap the price to the right, and it flips around to display Buy Song. Tap that, and you're prompted to log in with your iTunes Store password (not sure how often you're prompted for that password; iTunes itself only stores it for a period of time, although that behavior can be changed through preferences). After entering your password, a red marker jumps--it's pretty animation--down into the Downloads icon at the bottom, and the song begins to download.
When you dock your iPhone (or iPod touch) the next time, music purchased is synchronized back.
Apple's changed the face of digital music buying. Again. When will they stop? Oh, yeah, Amazon entered the market this week with a beta version of their DRM-free MP3 store with prices 30 to 40 cents lower than comparable unprotected tracks from Apple. But you'll have to buy those songs at a computer, not on an iPhone.
AT&T is getting a clue on its understanding of Wi-Fi. Okay, that's an overstatement: In the press release for the Blackberry 8820, the first cell plus Wi-Fi model of the handheld communicator, AT&T mentions the existence of hotspot networks. "Individual customers can use it in their homes and, for an additional charge, at thousands of Wi-Fi locations* throughout the U.S., including any of the 10,000 AT&T-owned or branded hot spot locations in the U.S. Users can also take advantage of tens of thousands of hot spots around the globe through such services as AT&T Wi-Fi roaming."
So far so good, right? Well that asterisk refers to this statement: "*Access charges from individual Wi-Fi hot spot operators may apply." And if you read through the pricing listed in the release, there's no mention of anything to do with AT&T and Wi-Fi.
Also, the link in the release to what supposedly is AT&T's own page with more information about the 8820 model--is dead. No such page. Great launch, guys.
AT&T's 10,000 hotspots are 8,000-plus McDonald's and a handful of other locations, including Barnes and Noble, a few hotels, a few airports, and a small coffeeshop chain.
Devicescape's Connect software for iPhone allows frictionless hotspot hookups: The single most annoying thing about an iPhone--after the lack of a To Do application--is how much effort it takes to connect to a hotspot that requires an account or payment. Devicescape's already solved that program for laptops, in an approach similar to Boingo's, but their real thrust is handheld devices and gadgets. Follow the link for my full write-up at TidBITS, a Macintosh site for which I am a contributing editor.
Distributed via a soft release today with Nullriver, makers of the iPhone installation hack called AppTapp, Devicescape's Connect makes it simple to connect to any network for which you've entered the credentials at their account management site. I've been testing the software for over a week. It's slick. It has two buttons: Login; Logout. Couldn't be more straightforward.
Devicescape attempts to remove the friction from using public and personal Wi-Fi networks, whether free or for-fee or under your own control, by externalizing authentication: you punch all the relevant details into their site, freeing you from having to perform device-by-device, network-by-network authentication, and relieving you of updating one or more devices when you change your own network passwords.
For an iPhone, it's rather ideal to gain access to networks that you have permission to use without any additional effort. Apple should have provided something like this; Devicescape beat them to the punch.
The software and service are free. Devicescape is considering value-added services to produce revenue, including simple options to buy access on networks they partner with using credit card details you store in your Devicescape account.
Nikon puts new Coolpix S51c on T-Mobile HotSpot network: The $330 Wi-Fi-enabled camera, shipping later this month, comes with six months of free use on T-Mobile HotSpot's U.S. network. The camera has an 8.1-megapixel sensor and 3x optical zoom. The six months begin from the first connect, which has to start before Aug. 31, 2008. These deals simply further emphasize how difficult it is to connect cameras to hotspots, as the cameras lack browsers.
None of Nikon's information explains the down-sampling that will be involved with emailing photos from the camera; it's unlikely that full-resolution images would be transmitted. Further, Nikon's previous software releases required software to be installed to transfer images at full resolution over a local network. The S51c comes with Mac and Windows software, so that's likely still the case.
No Wi-Fi camera has yet been released for the consumer market that simply allows file transfers at full resolution over any network reachable when connected via Wi-Fi, nor full-resolution image transmission. None that I'm aware of include secure file transfer, either, although Nikon says its associated picture service for this and other cameras uses some secure method, not defined.
Even the iPhone, with access to Wi-Fi, and with low-resolution photos, only emails or posts to Web galleries downsampled versions. You have to sync over USB to transfer the full resolution.
The new iPod with Wi-Fi--the iPhone without the phone--won't bring huge bucks into stores other than Starbucks: The reason is that Apple mysteriously has chosen to make no hotspot deals except with Starbucks, nor allow third-party applications (so far). Which means that getting onto any but a free network that doesn't require a login is a hassle. Without an application or a partnership deal in place, users who want to use the average for-fee hotspot, even one for which they have an account, will have to engage in the tedious task of entering their details each time they use the network.
The other part of this problem is that hotspot operators have told me that they've never been excited by the prospect of having mobile devices that can download huge files without additional compensation. I believe that's one reason that Apple restricted the iTunes purchases from iPods and iPhones to music. I can't see a simple way by which hotspot operators can recoup additional bandwidth costs; they may have to impose throttling if they don't already. (I suspect most well-run hotspots have variable throttling based on overall usage and a particular user's usage.)
Starbucks can see this as a minor win for them, because of the frictionless process of gaining access with an iPhone or iPod touch. There's no account entry to buy music; it seems like a small step from that into bundling T-Mobile HotSpot accounts with iPods and iPod touchs, but that might run afoul of the AT&T deal Apple has for the iPhone. (Where's AT&T WiFi, that company's Wi-Fi hotspot network? Apparently, part of a different division--the consumer part--and almost entirely McDonald's stores, as I've previously reported.)