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Telecom's Hottest Tech, Coolest Gadgets

Telecom and technology outfits from all over the world displayed their newest and most innovative gizmos at the ITU Telecom World conference in Geneva from Oct. 12-18, 2003. The event is a giant trade show held once every four years under the auspices of the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union, a global organization that coordinates telecom networks, services, and standards. BusinessWeek's Andy Reinhardt has been covering the conference and providing analysis and commentary about it (see these "ITU Telecom World 2003 Updates" from Reinhardt and his colleague Steve Rosenbush). He has also been prowling the conference floor and checking out the exhibits. Here's his roundup of some of the most interesting products and technologies he saw:

The Delling of Cell Phones

How's this for ambition? Vancouver (B.C.)-based Sierra Wireless (SWIR), a $100 million maker of laptop accessories, is wading into the $60 billion handset business dominated by the likes of Nokia (NOK), Motorola (MOT), and Samsung. What gives? Sierra Wireless now sells credit-card-size "PC card" wireless modems, add-ins that let laptop users get on the Internet and send e-mail via mobile-phone networks. But with a bit of help from Intel (INTC) and Microsoft (MSFT), Sierra Wireless is taking a big leap into handsets aimed at businesspeople.

Its new Voq phone, which will ship in the first quarter of next year in the U.S. and Europe for an expected price of $250 to $350, will be the first to use a new 200-megahertz version of Intel's powerful, energy-efficient Xscale microprocessor and the 2003 version of Microsoft's Windows Mobile software. As such, it represents the latest bid by the twin titans of PC technology to stake out a place in the booming mobile-phone arena. Creating mobile phones from building blocks such as Intel processors and Microsoft software is a direct challenge to the mobile industry's traditional model -- and threatens to introduce PC-like commoditization to the business' high-end "smartphone" segment.

Sierra hasn't yet announced any resellers for the Voq phone, but it now sells its PC cards for GSM and CDMA networks through operators such as Vodafone (VOD), T-Mobile, and Verizon (VZ). The Voq features a color screen, rubberized sides, and an unusual fold-out QWERTY keyboard. It will be pitched to corporate customers who want mobile access to e-mail and other company information.

One interesting element is that businesses using the phone won't have to add separate servers to manage outgoing e-mail to mobile users. Using an "always-on" wireless connection and a secure VPN (virtual private network) tunnel, Voq users can get mail "pushed" out to them as if they were sitting at their own desks.

Find Me a Good Meal

A small group of companies banded together to demonstrate the potential use of global positioning system (GPS) data when combined with a handheld PC, a mobile connection, location information, and mapping software. It's not a product now -- and may never be -- but it points the way for potential applications to come.

The demonstration pulled together a half-dozen diverse technologies. It starts with a Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) iPaq handheld computer, fitted with a plug-in radio modem for sending and receiving data via GPRS (general radio packet service), the so-called 2.5G data system that runs on top of GSM digital mobile networks. The iPaq also includes Bluetooth short-range radio technology for communicating with nearby devices. In this case, the iPaq exchanges information via Bluetooth with a palm-size GPS receiver, which obtains location information from a network of orbiting satellites.

So how does it all work? Say you want to find a restaurant in Geneva. The GPS device knows where you are and sends the information to the iPaq. To show your location, the iPaq can then fetch a map via the GPRS connection from an online mapping service. You tap in that you want to find a Japanese restaurant within one kilometer of where you're standing, and the iPaq sends out a query to an online directory of restaurants tagged by location and genre.

Presto: You see onscreen the location of all the places that fit the bill. You can tap on one to get more details, including its address, menu, prices, and even photos of the interior.

Want to make a reservation? Too bad. In this demo, you have to whip out your phone and dial the restaurant yourself. But with one of the phone-handheld hybrids now flooding the market, you'd be able to click on the number and dial automatically.

The group that devised the demo included SiRF, a San Jose (Calif.) maker of chips that work with the GPS system; Chicago-based Navigation Technologies, a leader in digital mapping software; London-based Telmap, which devises mapping-based applications; and chip giant Intel, which coordinated and promoted the project.

Stayin' Alive

One of the big kinks still to be worked out of the various wireless technologies now appearing on the market is how to hand off communication among them when users move around. For instance, the first third-generation (3G) phone network launched in Britain by Hong Kong-based Hutchison Wampoa (HUWHY) drops calls when users move out of range of a 3G cell, even if they're still covered by a GSM (2G) network. That gremlin should be worked out by next year, but it makes the service a lot less useful today.

Likewise, users of popular Wi-Fi wireless networks can't move their laptops out of a hotspot in the middle of an Internet session and keep the connection alive through slower mobile-phone connections -- or, at least, they couldn't until now. A company called Option, based in Leuven, Belgium, showed a PC card called the 3G Globetrotter that switches automatically and "seamlessly" -- that is, without dropping the connection -- between a wired Ethernet network, a Wi-Fi network, and 3G and 2.5G (or GPRS) mobile-phone networks.

The unprecedented technology, developed by two Belgian graduate students, means that for the first time, a laptop user with the card installed can stay online as he or she moves in and out of the office, wireless hotspots, and cell sites. Naturally, the speed adjusts with each move, but the card is smart enough to recognize when a faster option is available and jump back up automatically to a better connection.

The fly in the ointment is that today most people who use more than one kind of connection get their service from different providers. For instance, they may use SBC Communications (SBC) for their wired Internet connection, Boingo Wireless for Wi-Fi, and T-Mobile for mobile service. The details of how authentication, usage tracking, and billing would be passed from one kind of service to another haven't been ironed out. But with the existence of a gizmo such as the 3G Globetrotter, the impetus to come up with an answer has just gotten a lot stronger.

Revenge of the SIM

The lowly subscriber identification module, or SIM card, found in every one of the nearly 1 billion GSM phones on the planet, has just gotten a promotion. The thumbnail-size silicon chip, which is used to authenticate mobile users on the network and store phone numbers and other data, has long been the locus of jostling among industry players. Some have sought to imbue it with important new capabilities -- in effect, to make SIMs the repository of a customer's preferences and other personal information -- while others aimed to strip back its role to that of a simple identity tag, storing personal information in the handset or the mobile network instead.

Meanwhile, in the Internet world, Web-site operators have struggled to find viable ways to identify customers other than through easily forgotten or compromised passwords. And e-commerce outfits have gone to their graves waiting for better methods of online payment than credit-card numbers. Users have rejected as clumsy or intrusive scores of technologies for security and authentication, while online payment schemes, from digital cash to micropayments, have mostly failed.

The relationship between SIMs and the Internet? It was consummated this week by Microsoft and Vodafone, which showed a new thumb-size device -- known in computer-industry jargon as a dongle -- that plugs into a USB port on a PC and contains a SIM chip. The idea is to use SIMs' strong encryption and widespread support infrastructure as a means of establishing user I.D. and authentication on the Internet.

The deal also puts Vodafone in the Internet-portal business because its mobile customers -- especially users of its popular live! wireless services package -- will now be able to use the same content and services over the Internet. Obviously, that's just a starting point: If a Web surfer jumps online and gets verified through her SIM card by Vodafone, she could then go shopping at (AMZN), securely and with no need for passwords, and then buy stuff that would be charged directly to her Vodafone bill. Pretty clever, eh?

After all the tears and capital shed over trying to come up with new security and payment systems for the Web, it couldn't be more ironic that one answer lay under everybody's noses all along. Perhaps the wireless Web will happen after all, only with a twist: The wireless folks become the gatekeepers to the Web.

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