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Devicescape Aims to Ease Wi-Fi Hot Spot Connection Pain

I tire of hitting gateway pages at Wi-Fi hot spots that ask me to enter account information I've already set up. Shouldn't there be a simpler way than what feels like a 1995 interface - you know, maybe some software that makes the connection easier? Devicescape has my number: Their eponymous Devicescape software and ecosystem lets your Mac connect with less tedium to Wi-Fi networks at which you have accounts. But there's a lot more to their approach.

Boingo Wireless has long offered a software client for Wi-Fi network connection, although it came to Mac OS X several years after its introduction for Windows. Boingo aggregates many different hot spot networks worldwide and repackages 60,000 combined locations for a uniform per-session price (usually $8) or a flat monthly rate of $22 for unlimited access at North American locations and negotiated metered access in most of the rest of the world. Their client software recognizes Boingo partners and connects you with a single menu selection or automatically. (Boingo doesn't yet support Macs with Intel Core 2 Duo processors.)

Devicescape has thrown out a rather larger net that aims to catch every possible piece of electronics that might want to make a Wi-Fi network connection. (Don't count Boingo out, however; more on that in a moment.)

Browser-less Devices, Frustration-free Connections -- Devicescape wants to make it simple for mobile devices to hop onto Wi-Fi networks without that tedious entry of user name and password, made even more tedious by the lack of an interface or a Web browser on most handheld devices. Devicescape sees a world full of Wi-Fi-enabled phones, cameras, game consoles, PDAs, and other devices that don't even exist yet, and a world of frustration in connecting.

I share this frustration. I've tried some early Wi-Fi phones and music devices, and the pain in entering WPA network keys or logging onto hot spot networks - especially open networks that require a click-through on a Web page to agree to the terms of service - show me that there's no way average users will make it past the first steps.

Connecting to a public Wi-Fi hot spot almost always involves a gateway page that intercepts your attempt to reach the Internet via a Web browser. Until you go through the gateway page in your Web browser, no other application can access the Internet. That gateway page is a login screen to which your browser is redirected and on which you enter account information, if you have it, or payment details if a fee is required, or sometimes just agreement to terms of service. If you don't have a Web browser embedded in the device you're using, you can't get to the login page; if you have a browser, and you're using a mobile device, it might be cumbersome to navigate and enter appropriate details.

Devicescape's software and system go even further than just getting rid of hassle. The idea of one person, one account seems antiquated to them, when you might wind up with (or may already be carrying) several devices of varying sorts that each might need unique network access. In that device-centric approach, you might have a single overarching account with a network, and then a profile that lists all your associated devices under that account. Why would anyone pay $20 to $40 per month per device for unlimited Wi-Fi on for-fee networks? That adds up fast. In the Devicescape model, you might pay a small amount per month for each device or its usage, making networks affordable to use, while still profitable for the hot spot or network operators. (A not-so-big secret in the services world is that managing accounts, presenting bills to users, and collecting payment costs as much as $10 to $20 per month; additional services added to existing accounts are gravy beyond the overhead of the service itself.)

In Devicescape's outlook, you store all your authentication information, such as a user name and password or other tokens that a network might employ, on an account that you maintain via their Web site. You then use devices that have Devicescape software embedded. You pair these devices with your account in some simple manner, and then, when you roam, these devices communicate with Devicescape's servers through a secured means to retrieve your account information and log your device onto a hot spot network.

Embedding the Software -- There are a lot of stumbling blocks for Devicescape, which makes it all the more impressive how they have wired together their beta test so that it works.

The first stumbling block is getting software on so-called embedded operating system (OS) platforms. An embedded OS is what powers a piece of electronics that's not designed to be a general-purpose computer. Typically, it's a stripped-down or optimized version or offshoot of a larger OS, like Windows Mobile/Pocket PC or Linux - or an OS designed from the ground up, like those from VxWorks.

Devices that used embedded platforms are often closed to additional software, even if the platform they use supports third-party development. These closed devices require close cooperation with the maker of a device if you want to get your software into their product. Apple's iPhone leaps to mind. The iPhone isn't unusual in the larger device world, but it is strange in the smartphone segment, in which the major platforms like Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Palm OS allow arbitrary third-party-developed software to be installed by end users.

It's the true gadgets that are hard nuts to crack. Devicescape has a proof-of-concept package with the Linksys WIP300 Wireless-G IP Phone, an expensive wireless IP phone designed for metropolitan-scale Wi-Fi network service providers to resell. This is the only closed mobile device for which Devicescape currently provides embedded software. To make real inroads in this market, Devicescape will have to form partnerships with companies like Nintendo, Kodak, and Nokia to get the Devicescape software pre-installed.

In these early stages, Devicescape's software works on a handful of handheld devices, including Windows Mobile 5 smartphones and some Nokia tablets. They've also released software for computer operating systems, adding Mac OS X and Windows Vista support to existing Windows XP releases.

Smartphone users are a great audience, because they will be able to install Devicescape's software directly, but smartphone users may also be bound to existing Wi-Fi networks run by their cellular providers through bundled deals, like T-Mobile HotSpot or AT&T Wi-Fi.

Sneaking onto the Network -- The next nut to crack is the hot spot networks. Devicescape currently supports or is testing support for accounts that you may already have on a large array of major networks, including the two just mentioned, the grassroots network Fon, the major U.S. operator Wayport, the UK giant The Cloud, and several others.

Devicescape makes an interesting end run around the fact that they don't have formal partnerships with these networks. When I was first briefed by the company in December 2006, I asked, "If you don't have a relationship with a network, how do you get the software on your device to communicate over the Internet with your servers to retrieve the authentication information that logs that user's device in?"

They hemmed and hawed, but I figured out what their trick was, and they confirmed it; it's not illegitimate, just clever. They use DNS, the method by which any Internet-connected computer turns human-readable domain names into IP addresses. Hot spot networks block nearly all Internet traffic, but they do pass DNS queries to decentralized DNS servers, and thus Devicescape can pass small amounts of encrypted data back as a response from the DNS server. (At least two software packages exist that let you tunnel traffic via DNS queries to bypass this approach to access control!)

Many Networks, How Many Accounts? The final issue is the heterogeneity of hot spot networks, something Devicescape can't control. There are now hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots in the world, a good majority available on a for-fee basis. To use any arbitrary hot spot, you typically have to pay a walk-up rate or be a subscriber, paying recurring monthly fees that often come with a term commitment. Free hot spots have lower or no bars to usage; the highest bar might be viewing an advertisement or clicking on a usage agreement to gain access - something often difficult or impossible on a mobile device.

This melange of networks means that users can't always predict where they will have access, nor what it might cost. Devicescape has the notion that by centralizing your account information on their servers they could aggregate access to networks and sell you discounted access without you re-entering credit card information at the network venue - the transaction would happen between their servers (where you'd stored payment information) and the hot spot network, reducing friction in gaining access in a strange location.

One scenario: You're on vacation and want to upload photos from your Wi-Fi capable camera. You fire up the camera, which has Devicescape software installed, use arrows and a select button to choose "Find a network," and then select "Pay $3 for 24 hours access" to use the network. Easy as pie, perhaps.

Another is the "obscene calling rate" problem: Your plane lands in London, and you find you have a five-hour layover. Making a call with your cell phone would cost $2.35 per minute or something equally insane. But with Skype and a Wi-Fi-enabled handheld, it's just $0.02 per minute. You bring up the Devicescape software on the handheld, accept an 8 euro charge - seemingly cheap compared to the metered phone rates - and Bob's your uncle. Rather, Bob's on the other end of the line, hearing you clearly.

Devicescape and the Competitive Landscape -- Devicescape will face competition, of course. Boingo has already entered the fray with their Boingo Mobile option, a new direction for the company that offers voice over IP (VoIP) access with Wi-Fi IP phones over their worldwide aggregated network for $8 per month. Where Boingo's laptop access runs $22 per month for unlimited service in North America, most locations elsewhere in the world charge a metered rate for access by computer. The Boingo Mobile plan, by contrast, includes all voice usage in every supported location for that one $8 per month rate. (Not all Boingo laptop locations are included in their mobile plan yet, but they're working on it.)

Skype has worked with many handset makers to embed their software in Wi-Fi and cordless IP phones, and they also work with Boingo. I've tested an early phone from Belkin that combines Skype calling with Boingo service. You pay $200 for the phone and $8 per month for unlimited Boingo calling. (Skype charges nothing for intra-network calls, $30 per year for unlimited calls to numbers in the United States and Canada, and $38 per year for unlimited incoming calls to a "real" phone number; this includes voicemail.)

The ultimate result of Devicescape's approach and the simultaneous emergence of cooperating partners and competing firms will be that it should become ever easier for these new devices with their fancy high-speed wireless adapters to, you know, actually do something.

I can't tell you the frustration I experienced when I read that Microsoft's Zune had Wi-Fi - but couldn't connect to Wi-Fi networks, download music over Wi-Fi, or even synchronize over Wi-Fi (see "Zune Doom," 2006-11-13). Apple is poised to force on us the same limitations for music (not Web browsing or email) and syncing with the iPhone (see "iQuestion the iPhone," 2007-01-22). Devicescape wants to make sure that those crimes against technology don't become the norm.


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