Delivering the Wi-Fi promise

My Nokia N80 handset, like many others from the Finnish manufacturer, is equipped with Wi-Fi capability. Nokia has become a major supporter of the technology, integrating Wi-Fi into almost all of its N-Series and E-Series devices as part of a wider corporate strategy initiative to turn its products into internet terminals. And it’s not alone – Wi-Fi is now a common feature of many Windows Mobile and Symbian devices from other manufacturers – in fact, analyst forecasts project a 1300% jump in the number of Wi-Fi equipped mobiles between 2007 and 2010.

I use the N80’s Wi-Fi connection for checking emails around the house and office, web browsing, downloading cached content for later viewing (typically when I’m out of mobile coverage, like on the Tube) and synchronising photos to my Flickr account. Most of my usage is driven by two factors: speed and cost. I always use Wi-Fi in preference to a cellular link in these environments because it is quicker and has no additional cost.

However, my Wi-Fi usage is typically confined to my own home, as well as a couple of other offices and houses I visit regularly. The primary reason for this is the frustrating user experience involved in setting-up each connection. I frequently check for the presence of a Wi-Fi hotspot when I need to connect on the move, but I’ve only ever been successful on a handful of occassions.

Security settings, coverage problems and the difficulty of signing on to subscription-based hotspots from the browser of a mobile handset all conspire to make the process time-consuming and in-effective. Given that most of my mobile connectivity needs occur in short bursts – 30 seconds to check some email or a minute or so to browse a news article – I have started to skip the Wi-Fi search altogether and go straight to the cellular connection, regardless of the higher cost and lower data speeds.

As with so many mobile interactions, the speed of the network itself isn’t necessarily the main issue – the longest delays are caused by the latency of bad user experience.

I met an interesting company recently – DeviceScape Software – which claims it can help solve this problem. DeviceScape provides a lightweight (about 50 Kb) software client which sits on mobile devices and manages the Wi-Fi connection. Dave Fraser, the CEO, was in London attending the Wireless Event at Olympia. Originally from Glasgow but now based in California, he was in town because his company had been nominated for a Wireless Broadband Innovation Award at the show.

Managing Wi-Fi connections is not exactly rocket science. All Wi-Fi enabled devices, from laptops to mobile phones, come with some sort of management software, allowing users to scan, identify and sign-on to networks. However, DeviceScape’s approach is rather different.

The client sits in the background and when the user attempts to connect to a network it uses the DNS channel of the access point to query the DeviceScape database and see whether settings for that connection have already been supplied by another user. If so, it downloads any relevant configuration information and activates the connection automatically. The DNS technique is significant (DeviceScape is currently going through the patent process for this part of the product) because many hotspots prevent the user from getting a connection to the web before they’ve been authenticated. By using the DNS query capability, DeviceScape is able to connect to its database from virtually any hotspot – pre-authentication – and gather the required information.

DeviceScape’s ambition is to make this a ‘zero step’ interface. The user literally never sees the DeviceScape client – it does everything in the background and the user gets on the network without any additional clicks or layers being introduced.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. For instance, if a user already has a subscription account for a hotspot network like T-Mobile or Wayport, they will need to register their username and password details via the DeviceScape web-site. This allows DeviceScape to match the client device with the network account and ensure they can connect automatically whenever they are in range of a compatible hotspot. They will also need to do the same for domestic access points, unless they are already configured within the device (in which case DeviceScape’s software lets the in-built Wi-Fi management software do its thing).

It is an interesting concept. DeviceScape is leveraging the power of a global Wi-Fi community to build a database of connection settings which then benefit other users on the network by enhancing their sign-on experience. It doesn’t share any personal usernames or passwords, but collects the basic configuration information which can often be needed to establish a successful connection. It also allows this information to be shared across several of a user’s devices, so if their laptop is already set-up for several networks, they can easily port those settings to their new Wi-Fi enabled smartphone.

According to Fraser, DeviceScape is about to rollout its client software with some major players. Intel will use it at the heart of its Wi-Fi chipsets. RIM will also install the software when it launches its Wi-Fi enabled Blackberries later this year. The lightweight code allows it to be quickly and easily integrated, or delivered as an over-the-air (OTA) update to existing devices.

DeviceScape currently have about 10,000 users, but this could jump almost overnight to more than a million when one of their first customers delivers the software as an OTA package to its existing installed base in the next few weeks. Fraser confided that the thought of scaling so quickly is causing quite a few sleepless nights, despite the stress testing and reliability built into the platform.

The company’s business model is built around two major revenue sources. Firstly, it charges a small license fee for the client software. Hardware manufacturers pay DeviceScape to integrate directly into their products. This includes all of the obvious candidates – like laptop and phone vendors – but also an increasing number of consumer electronics companies, such as digital camera manufacturers. In fact, many of these less obvious customers are the ones with the greatest need for DeviceScape’s technology, as it simply wouldn’t be possible to configure Wi-Fi settings manually on devices which have no keyboard or text input mechanism.

Fraser believes its other major revenue source will be from referral fees, where hotspot networks pay DeviceScape a commission whenever it brings a paying customer onto their system. This is something he hopes to build in the medium- to long-term and could eventually eclipse the royalty payments from software licensing.

The company is sitting at an interesting inflexion point. Hardware manufacturers, particularly those in the mobile handset business, are looking more and more at how they can deliver high speed network connectivity outside the restrictions of the operator-controlled environment. Nokia, for instance, knows it can deliver some compelling, high value applications over Wi-Fi connections which simply won’t be possible using 3G because there isn’t enough capacity and the pricing model is completely out of step with consumer expectations in most markets.

With Nokia talking more and more about its future as an ‘internet company’ and developing applications for everything from music to navigation, Wi-Fi – and subsequently Wi-Max – could have major strategic importance.

However, the uiquity and reliability of cellular connections has set the precedent in mobile, and manufacturers like Nokia can’t afford to risk a poor customer experience when they start encouraging users to make more use of alternative networks. DeviceScape’s solution is a simple way to avoid this.

The opportunity is not just limited to the mobile telecoms business either. Any sector where hardware manufacturers can see the value in providing connected applications to their customers has potential for DeviceScape. Fraser and I discussed how Nintendo has signed a deal with Wayport to provide free Wi-Fi connectivity for users of its DS handheld console across the Wayport network. The Japanese gaming manufacturer has recognised multi-player games, played over wireless connections, add significant value to its overall proposition and has therefore been prepared to invest in developing this capability. It’s not difficult to imagine other companies in this area – Sony, for instance – following suit.

There are some potential barriers to DeviceScape’s progress. The most obvious is the ability of manufacturers to develop this capability for themselves, depending on how the company’s patent application pans out. However, this would seem unlikely given DeviceScape’s ability to deliver a much wider community than a single manufacturer could build on its own.

Then there is the operational challenge of maintaining quality of service. DeviceScape’s business could rapidly change from that of a nimble technology start-up to a service operation responsible for checking and maintaining a huge database of ever-changing Wi-Fi connection settings. It’s hard to see how that could be profitable with its current revenue stream, yet ensuring quality for its customers will be a key part of its proposition.

Fraser and I also discussed the issue of interface consistency. I asked him how DeviceScape would meet the challenge of providing a consistent interface across an incredibly diverse range of devices, from digital cameras to laptop PCs. For a small company, the software engineering involved could be prohibitely expensive. However, Fraser was relaxed on this issue, stating that in most instances, their ambition was to avoid any form of visual interface on the device – at least in the current generation of the product – and instead hide all of the complexity for the user. It’s often said that the best interfaces are those which appear invisible, so perhaps DeviceScape’s approach is the most prudent course of action?

The final issue is the real ‘Catch 22’. The very nature of DeviceScape’s proposition and the fact it has identified an important and interesting need in the market puts it in a difficult situation. Manufacturers are attaching significant strategic importance to expanding wireless connectivity away from operator-controlled environments. DeviceScape may provide an ideal way to do this, but by controlling the software layer which manages the network interface, it potentially creates a strong position for itself within the value chain. That could scare some of its prospective customers.

Fraser mentioned some possible ways in which the business could expand its revenues in the future, such as using its knowledge of user behaviour and location to deliver advertising over the Wi-Fi connection. While this would be technically possible, it is the kind of proposition which is sure to set alarm bells ringing in the corporate strategy departments manufacturers who are still unsure of how, why or if they can monetise mobile advertising for themselves.

This is just one of several possibilities the company is considering and Fraser stressed that he was working actively with many of his customers to reassure them and ensure there are explicit terms within their contracts limiting the use of the DeviceScape connection to a specific purpose.

Under Fraser’s experienced leadership, DeviceScape appears to have strong potential. He spent most of his career at embedded OS provider Wind River – most recently as Chief Marketing Officer – an experience which has made him fully aware of the unique requirements of deploying extremely reliable, invisble software. If DeviceScape’s solution can bring the seamless connectivity usually associated with cellular to the Wi-Fi environment, it could enable a new generation of rich multimedia applications driven by device manufacturers intent on providing a ‘total’ user experience.

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  1. 1
    Klaus Verno

    Wonderful and neutral product. I love the idea of device manufacturers helping users to bypass the mobile enviroment. But they must hurry up because there all several small companies after the same ideas.

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