Picture this: You're at the Los Angeles airport, about to board a jet bound for London. There's no way you're going to survive the 11 hour flight without at least 10 pounds of reading material. But wait, what's this? The nearby newsstand is empty. There's not a book or magazine in sight. Instead, there's just a little plastic box mounted on the wall, with a blinking red light and a touch screen monitor that says "BOOKS - MAGAZINES - NEWSPAPERS."
As you approach the box, a menu appears. There are hundreds of downloadable periodicals to choose from. You select today's edition of the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Business Week. On impulse, you pick the latest Stephen King thriller, too. Then you hold your Palm-OS handheld up to the box and in a matter of minutes, your gadget is loaded with all the reading material you need for the long hop across the pond, charged automatically to your credit card account.
This scenario isn't a reality yet, but the technology to make it happen - infrared beaming - is already here. There are several companies competing in the infrared beaming-station market, and if they're successful, your handheld will soon be more than an organizer, it'll be a conduit for information and entertainment as well.
The poor man's wireless network
Wireless networks will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the way we use the Internet, but it'll be a number of years before all the necessary pieces fall into place. Wi-Fi networks still aren't easy to use, and most mobile devices don't come with wireless network cards. But nearly every PDA has a built-in infrared port, ready to send and receive news, email, programs, advertisements, entertainment guides, and driving directions.
By the year 2004, industry analysts predict there will be over 64 million smart devices in use. Several companies are betting that these users will be eager to download and transmit information at beaming stations installed in public places, such as airports, hotel lobbies, bus and rail stations, shopping centers, and sports arenas. Right now, these infrared service stations are only available for Palm, but WAP phones, Bluetooth devices, and WindowsCE devices will soon be able to join in the infrared action.
Here's a look at the four major players in the infrared beaming arena.
Located in Waltham, Massachusetts, adAlive was founded in May of 2000 with $4 million in venture capital funding. AdAlive's beaming boxes shine with an otherworldly green color, like gifts from space aliens. You can find them in the lobby of the Wyndham Summerfield Suites in Waltham, and next to billboards in American Airlines terminals at JFK.
The boxes beam hotel, dining, and entertainment recommendations, along with the latest information from mobile channel manager AvantGo and from Vindigo.com, the popular city entertainment guide for PDA users. If users have a web-based email account, they can also download their messages onto their Palms.
AdAlive's service is free to the user, and is paid for by the billboard's sponsor, who also beams an advertisement onto the user's PDA. Early advertisers - who pay a 25% premium over the going monthly rate of $2,000 to $4,000 for airport billboard space - include Ernst & Young and Citibank.
New York-based Streetbeam has attached transmitters to over 300 telephone booth billboards in Manhattan, enticing PDA users to download coupons, schedules, games, programs, and product information onto their Palm OS-devices and WAP-enable cell phones. With fun applications like Savvy Cabby, which computes approximate taxi fares from different points in Manhattan (see Savvy Cabby and other StreetBeam applications at http://www.palm.com/nycbeam/), Streetbeam has won a number of high-profile clients, such as Banana Republic, Warner Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Sotheby's, and American Express.
Palm, Inc is using Streetbeam's system on 100 phone booth kiosks. Advertisers pay $500 month in addition to the standard phone booth billboard fees. Launched last year with $3 million in seed funding, Streetbeam is expanding its service in the fall to San Francisco, London, Atlanta, and Boston.
One drawback to Streetbeam's technology is the way in which information in the transmitting boxes is updated: an employee has to physically visit each station to upload new content. But Streetbeam says this manually intensive method will soon be replaced with remote updating.
Australian startup Bluefish was launched in June with $5 million in funding. Like Streetbeam and adAlive, its first market is billboard advertising, and the service can be found at airports in Atlanta and Chicago. Bluefish's charter clients include Tower records, Sharper Image, E*Trade, Ernst & Young, iBeauty, and Proflowers.com.
Unlike the other companies in the infrared space, Bluefish offers two-way transactions, so users will be able to make reservations at restaurants, and order goods and services like movie tickets, records, flowers, and gifts.
The battery operated book-sized boxes will cost about $200 each, and units within a local area can be interconnected over 900 MHz radio to an Internet-connected base station, that costs about $700. Bluefish plans to expand into employee time-tracking, supply chain management, e-procurement, corporate travel, conference and tradeshow logistics, and field service engineer support.
Founded in 1999, the privately held Wideray is based in San Francisco, and has engineering and sales offices in Vancouver and New York. The company specializes in location-specific information, and has beaming stations with a 15-foot-range (compared to the standard six-inch-limit of standard infrared beaming) and can handle multiple simultaneous users.
The curvy, slightly retro-looking WideRay Jack box is about the size of a book, and is entirely self-contained. Powered by an internal battery, the boxes are not sold, but rented to retailers for $100/month. The information is updated wirelessly via the Flex paging network.
San Francisco's Sony Metreon entertainment and retail complex has installed four "Jack" boxes in its entrance lobby. Shopper with infrared-equipped PDA's will be able to download a map of the Metreon, as well as electronic coupons, shopping and event news, and movie times. Other clients that have signed up for WideRay's service include Land Rover, Stanford University, and Pacific Bell Park, home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. Baseball fans can download scorekeeping application, and digital baseballs cards with stats and team rosters.
WideRay is targeting its services at trade shows, where attendees will be able to download lists of exhibitors, along with directions for finding them on the convention floor.
When infrared blinks out?
It's certainly possible that infrared beaming stations will be obsolete once radio networking becomes ubiquitous. But that doesn't mean companies who are touting infrared will go out of business. If they manage to do well in the next couple of years, they'll have a big advantage over wireless newcomers, because they'll already have both the physical locations for the transmitting stations, as well as valuable experience in delivering the kind of information that mobile device users want when they're in public spaces.
For today's PDA user, however, beaming is the only game in town.
Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.