Monday, June 14, 2004

Conjuring a wireless scenario

Earlier this week, thanks to some stunning organisation by Bernie, I spent some time with a bundle of new companies. Some operating out of bedrooms (garages are, it seems, out of fashion these days), some in small office blocks and some just starting the path to profit and looking like proper companies. A few of them have products that make sense right now. So, first off, here are a couple of technologies, out of the couple of dozen I saw this week: Two years ago or so I met Oqo. Back then they had what looked to be the coolest PC of all time. Small, handheld, with a sliding (touch) screen that revealed a keyboard, running full Windows XP, wireless, bluetooth and a 1MHz Transmeta process, it would have revolutionised the market. Two years on, it could still do the same but there is more competition on the scene and the window of opportunity looks smaller. The guys there could still pull it off. I played with one for an hour or so - it looks great and has some amazing engineering in it. For instance, if you drop it, an accelerometer inside detects that its falling and parks the head on the hard drive. It may still not survive, but that's incredible attention to detail. The screen slides on tiny cogs that are visible in the edge of the case, making sure that it stays true as you pop out the keyboard. Sadly, it still has the same Transmeta processor in it that was on the speclist two years ago, which I think is a risk for Oqo. It's slow - too slow for me (I ran a Compaq Tablet for a while with the same chip and it drove me mad). It's not, though, a tablet pc - it runs full Windows but you can write on the screen with a pen. That's an intriguing decision but I suspect it's something to do with the tablet market not moving perhaps as much as many had hoped, certainly not as much as BillG had hoped. But, picture a mobile worker equipped with an Oqo, always connected to the systems back at base across a Wifi network. The device is small enough to go into a jacket pocket, has enough battery life to last the working day and runs all the apps that you could want. Customer records can be looked up, updated and compared; orders can be placed; benefits can be assessed. There's some serious potential there. Oqo will launch in October - they promise for real this time - and the first reviews should be in the Wall Street Journal in September. Initially shipments will be in the US only. We'll have to wait a while to see them in the UK. Separately, I spent some time with Vocera. These guys have a "StarTrek" like device - a phone that operates over the Wifi network. A touch of a button and the "genie" inside asks what you need. You say "get me Alan" or "call Alan" and the system places a call over the wifi network direct to me. If I want to take the call I tell the genie "ok" and we're connected - if not, I say "no" or "I'm busy" or similar and the caller gets to leave a message. It's impressive in operation and is already being used in several dozen hospitals, where nurses and doctors can keep their hands free, don't have to hunt around for a 'phone and don't have to remember extension numbers. It's impressive in operation and looks to have huge potential - both in terms of improving communication and also driving costs down. This is one device that I'm hoping to see become wildly more prevalent because I really think it has potential to be great. Doubtless there are other companies that have something similar, but there's something about the user experience on this one that makes me think it could establish a powerful lead. I hear that Westminster Council in London are setting up a wireless network to cover the whole borough. So far, I believe it's only for council employees rather than for providing laptop users with high bandwidth 'net connections. With a pervasive wireless network, employees can be fully untethered. With the technology from these two companies the council folks could have a wifi laptop and a wifi phone. They'll be in contact with colleagues online and through the phone network. They will be truly untethered and able to be far more productive – sitting with people who need their help to navigate their way throughout government. It’s not strictly e-government, but it makes a lot of sense to me.

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