Access for All Wi-Fi Devices

Access for All Wi-Fi Devices

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Written By Eric Sandler

That’s the mantra of Devicescape, as it unveils a new software/service combo to allow even products without a user interface to go online.

After a couple of months of quiet testing, Devicescape Software is officially unveiling its new connection software/service combo at the DEMO 07 Conference in Palm Desert, California. The promise: any device outfitted with the software — even ‘headless’ devices without a graphical interface — will be able to get access at just about any free or commercial Wi-Fi network, including hotspots and municipal networks that require a login with username and password.

“We’ve seen an explosion of new products coming, like Skype VoIP handsets from Netgear and Belkin, a proliferation of Wi-Fi gaming like the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, new cameras, even MP3 players like [Microsoft’s] Zune or the Sansa from SanDisk that uses the Rhapsody service over Wi-Fi,” says Devicescape CEO Dave Fraser. “We’re trying to provide effortless access to public networks for those devices.”

Most Wi-Fi networks that require a username and password expect the credentials to be entered using a Web browser. But more and more products like those Fraser mentions can barely surf the Web; some don’t have a browser at all.

“Our approach has a little bit of software with a tiny footprint in a device — the kind of software that can fit in any device, even the lowest-cost consumer electronics,” says Fraser. “All the information on how to get into the network, including the credentials like your username and password, are held on our back-end Web service.” The user presets all their credentials for services they want to access (for example, T-Mobile Hotspots and EarthLink muni Wi-Fi services), and when in the presence of those networks, the user can automatically sign on without interacting at all with a browser interface. If they sign up for new service from another provider, they just enter it into the account settings online later.

This will work on systems with a browser as well, speeding up the login time for Windows XP SP2 users, for example. Right now, the Devicescape connection software is limited to XP, Windows Mobile 5, the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, and the Linksys WIP300 VoIP phone.

Services supported at the soft launch included T-Mobile, Google’s free network in Mountain View, California, and the FON community hotspots.

“Since then, we’ve asked our community of users to tell us the networks they use, which providers they’re most interested in, and now we have over 30 networks — most of the major carriers and universities — and we’re starting to see municipalities asking for support,” says Fraser. For example, EarthLink support was added just a few days ago when a Devicescape user captured the login page and forwarded it on. Now any EarthLink municipal Wi-Fi user with the Devicescape software installed can get fast access if they set up an account with Devicescape to hold the username/password info.

Free Wi-Fi networks like Google’s are available for any profile, but the user still has to enter their Google account info, which Google requires for access. Some free networks need only an e-mail as a credential; the user must allow that in their account profile.

Adding a network is as simple as Devicescape — or one of its users— capturing the “log in” page for a service, submitting it via a Web form, and adding it as an option. “This approach allows us to bring an extremely high volume of devices to the network provider… they can take advantage of a large number of devices without doing any integration at all,” says Fraser. Device makers who build in the software, which totals around 50K of space, can thus support an “unlimited” number of networks.

Will the providers really want or allow this easy login? Fraser says yes, because it’s not like the users aren’t paying customers. “From [the provider’s] point of view, the login could be from a laptop,” he says. “That’s what we simulate.”

He says most operators want to have multiple devices on the network, with specialized plans for each device. A Devicescape user can have one account across multiple devices, which establishes a unique ID for each device. “With our help, the operator can say it’s $4 a month for a camera [in addition to laptop access], and be sure the account is not being abused,” Fraser says. Of course, that varies from provider to provider. T-Mobile, for example, only requires users to have one account that works on any and all PCs, cameras, Skype phones, etc. AT&T Wi-Fi, however, has a limit of three devices per account, and will block a fourth if they don’t recognize the MAC address of the unit.

“That’s why it’s good for us to collaborate with providers, so we can design plans,” says Fraser.

Eventually, there’s a chance that the Devicescape software could be the official method of sign-on for a carrier or two, but Fraser couldn’t comment on such discussions other than to say it’s possible. Right now, the focus is on customer acquisition — especially design wins with manufacturers to license and integrate the software. That would be much easier than end-users downloading the software themselves, as is required today.

Currently, the Devicescape service only supports networks that are free or that have monthly subscription fees. It plans to add day-pass support soon.

As for working with a hotspot aggregator like Boingo Wireless, Fraser says they’d be a perfect complement to each other, not competition. Whereas Boingo has a smart client that includes a database of their locations, Devicescape’s software keeps the list of sites online — there’s no need to update or upgrade it. “Most devices, they don’t have local storage,” he says. Instead, he sees Devicescape bringing a lot of devices to Boingo and similar networks.

How can Devicescape authenticate with a network if it has to get the credentials over the Internet first, and the data is not stored on the device? It asks the local WLAN for assistance in getting the credentials before the user starts surfing the Web, accessing the data via DNS. That’s the secret sauce the company has patented.

Devicescape plans to make its money in this venture by licensing the client software to device manufacturers, and by getting paid to bring incremental business to service providers. “If we bring them a new subscriber or on-demand transaction in some way they couldn’t get otherwise (such as via a phone or camera), we’d like to share revenue,” says Fraser. “Various projections see billions of Wi-Fi devices coming in the next few years. If their access can be monetized, we can take a slice of that.”

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