WideRay beams data to handhelds

Wireless server vendor WideRay Corp. this week introduced a device that lets users with Pocket PC and Palm OS handhelds access information via the widely installed, but rarely used, infrared interface found on most such devices.

By connecting via infrared to a hand-sized server, called the Jack, Pocket PC users can access whatever Web information has been deployed for them at a given site: product catalogues, pricing data, human resources information.

The Jack is designed to exploit the huge installed base of handhelds and other devices that already are set up to use infrared as a wireless connection to exchange data. The 6-by-5-by-2-inch device weighs 20 ounces and has a lithium-ion battery pack, so it’s completely self-sufficient. The Jack is equipped with a microprocessor, 4M bytes of memory cache, server software, a downloadable viewer and WideRay’s patent pending high-speed, multicasting Infrared protocol, which supports the Infrared Data Association (IRDA) protocol.

WideRay added to IRDA so that users can connect to the Jack from a distance of up to 15 feet (instead of 3 feet). With more powerful infrared transmitters, the Jack can send out one-way bursts to 150 feet. Another addition lets the Jack transmit at the same time to numerous clients, instead of the one-to-one infrared beaming that is typical of IRDA.

The Jack has a built-in wide-area interface: the venerable Motorola Flex Network, which is a paging protocol long supported nationwide by several service providers. In the future, WideRay plans to support other long-distance cellular-based services such as GSM/General Packet Radio Service, says CEO Saul Kato. Also in the works: radio-based connections to handhelds, via 802.11b and Bluetooth.

WideRay says typical use for the Jack is for a business customer to use an Internet connection and WideRay’s HTML/XML development suite to update Web content on a server hosted by WideRay or some third party. Then, the hosting service uses the Flexnet paging link to distribute the new content to the specific Jacks, mounted in a company lobby or cafeteria, or a chain of retail stores.

Sony Metreon – an entertainment centre with theatres, retails shops and restaurants in downtown San Francisco – has five Jacks installed, including a new one for content related to the Spider-Man movie. The new Jack is installed in a streetside display window, where passersby can pause and download an interactive game in just a few seconds.

“Our guests come back week after week to download our event calendars, movie times, promotional interactive games, and so on,” says Archana Elwell, vice-president of business development for Sony Metreon. “We can distribute this content with requiring people to go to a URL.”

The WideRay Jacks have run flawlessly at Convent of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls high school in the Pacific Heights neighbourhood of San Francisco. Currently, the school updates each of three Jacks separately: An administrator updates daily announcements, homework assignments, various school calendars on a PC and then downloads the data to a Palm handheld. The administrator beams the new information to each Jack.

“What we’d like to do is update our information more than once a day,” says Principal Doug Grant. Grant plans to use future connectivity options from WideRay to link the Jacks to the school’s wired network, so content can be updated more often, with less effort.

The updated software, supporting both Pocket PC and Palm devices is available now. Typically, Kato says, the monthly charge is about US$200 per Jack, but significant volume discounts are available.

Kato, an ex-Sun technology guru, most recently was founder and CEO of Sven Technologies, which he sold to Spacial Technology. The WideRay team also includes Gerry West, director of hardware engineering, who has in the past 19 years worked for Motorola and Nortel. The company has partnered with Motorola, Microsoft and Palm, among others.

There are several rivals, offering small, simple, but powerful servers designed to create Web access points for wireless handhelds. These include Bluefish Wireless, Intrinsyc and Streetbeam. All three create standalone Web servers, some of which need power or network cabling. They support various handheld operating systems and wireless connections to them. So far, most of the applications are in entertainment, trade shows and other events, and marketing.