John Dix: Please have your cell phone give my laptop a call

One of the meetings I was able to squeeze in at NetWorld+Interop 2001 trade show in Atlanta before being dispatched home when news of the September 11 disasters filtered in was with a small company out to solve a thorny problem: peer-to-peer links between myriad gizmos.

It’s hard enough to figure out how to get your laptop to communicate with your PDA and cell phone, but just try to get your PDA to talk to mine. And it’s only going to get worse as portable devices proliferate, and intelligence is built into everything from cars to vending machines. (Remember the idea about being able to buy a Coke by dialing the machine from your cell phone? Wouldn’t it be easier just to point and click?)

The nub of the problem is there are too many options. Even if you have two devices with infrared, 802.11b wireless Ethernet or Bluetooth ports, that doesn’t guarantee they can communicate. There are application, operating system and protocol implementation hurdles to overcome.

For example, cell phone makers may not implement Bluetooth 1.1 in the same way, or the version on my machine may be different from the one on yours. And if we swap electronic business cards and my application supports three address lines and yours only supports two, what happens to the third line?

Enter Impart Technology Inc. The company has developed something called the Embedded Communication Broker (ECB) to support just-in-time application assembly.

In use, a device with the 220KB ECB can determine through an initial conversation what another device looks like and then build a state machine on the fly to accommodate that device’s idiosyncrasies. When communications are complete the state machine is discarded.

Unlike competing approaches, Impart’s technology doesn’t require software on both devices, so its reach will be greater out of the box, and it doesn’t require communications through a translating service or server, so it’s simpler.

CEO Scott Bleakley says the system will also be dynamically extensible. If the device with the ECB doesn’t have the required components to open a dialogue with another device, and happens to have access to the ‘Net, it can dial up Impart and download the appropriate state machine.

Bleakley plans to make money by OEMing the technology to vendors of cell phones, PDAs and other devices (discussions are already in the works) and selling US$2,000 software development kits and collecting run-time fees.

It isn’t clear if the company will make it, but the need for this product can only grow with time.