Wireless developers beam into next rush

Technology: Baltimore-Washington start-ups are at the cutting edge of what they predict is the next technological wave: wireless applications.

June 11, 2000|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

In the near future, predicts Jay Steinmetz, school teachers armed with handheld gadgets may scan student ID cards to log attendance for the day and then beam the information to a central school computer. Parents - at least those with access to a personal computer - could then check the school Web site to ensure that their kids didn't play hooky.

Sound like a page out of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"? Perhaps. But the scenario isn't fantasy and it highlights the coming explosion in functions, or "applications," for handheld wireless devices - cell phones, pagers, and the array of personal digital assistants.

"The future is looking very slick when it comes to wireless," said Steinmetz, whose Baltimore company, Barcoding.com, has developed a wireless system that allows schools to track attendance, class schedules and cafeteria purchases through the use of bar codes and wireless devices.

In fact, say wireless industry experts, common applications today - such as accessing personal calendars, stock quotes and weather reports - may soon seem primitive. Many wireless service providers may have to provide them as free or standard services to compete, say experts.

In the near future, consumers will be able to get information as diverse and personalized as drug prescriptions, checking account balances, sales and inventory records, theater and movie ticket availability, restaurant locations, even Little League scores. It's a digital tidal wave headed for a palm near you.

Even now, AT&T Wireless, Sprint, and Bell Atlantic's Verizon are offering customers in select U.S. cities, including Baltimore and Washington, access to limited Internet sites via new digital phones. But that is just the tip of what promises to be a very big iceberg, say company executives and other experts.

The day is not far off, say experts, when U.S. businesses begin arming their work forces with cell phones or other electronic wireless devices in much the same fashion personal computers were installed en masse in the 1980s.

Also in the works: Web-enabled cellular phone users will be able to instantly check bank account balances and make purchases in stores. "Amazon.com on the run," as one industry expert calls it.

"The phone and other digital devices are going to replace debit cards and cash," said David Oros, founder and chief executive officer of Owings Mills-based Aether Systems Inc., which is in a joint venture to develop and market "electronic wallets."

As a result of Aether's innovations, and those of a handful of other companies in the region, the Baltimore-Washington area has emerged as one of the hotbeds of activity for start-ups angling for a piece of the action, notes Mark Desautels, president of the Wireless Data Forum, a Washington-based trade group, and other experts. The other big arena for wireless innovation: Silicon Valley, of course.

The efforts of Aether and others to develop electronic wallet technology is giving rise to a new marketplace known as mobile commerce, or m-commerce. It's already taken hold in some limited locations in Europe and Japan where wireless networks are a couple of leaps ahead of the fragmented U.S. system, noted Desautels.

Indeed, many wireless industry experts believe that the race to develop and sell wireless information services will replace the dot-com frenzy as the next gold rush.

The reason: Billions are at stake in potential subscription fees, transaction fees, advertising and other revenue, say analysts, though no one has yet come up with a specific revenue estimate.

"Just when you've got your servers and network running and had your dot-com focused on beating the competition, guess what? You have to start it all over again. The wireless Web is here and it's going to revolutionize how American business operates," said Alex Lightman, co-founder of Charmed Technology Inc., a Silicon Valley-based spinoff of the MIT Media Lab.

Forrester Research Inc., which studies the Internet, predicts that the number of people using a mobile phone, or other "smart device" in the United States will grow to a 61 percent market penetration rate - 177 million by 2005, up from about 103 million today. And almost 100 percent of the devices will access the Internet.

"It will be almost invisible that you're accessing the Web," said Mark Zohar, a wireless industry analyst with Forrester.

Common applications, including e-mail, instant messaging and timely personal information, such as when a particular item is up for auction on eBay.com, will be common in a few years, said Zohar. The dominant mobile device will be the cell phone, he predicted. "The killer application in all of this will remain voice. Mobile people still want to talk."

But the biggest money to be made, said Zohar, will be in what are called business-to-employee applications - allowing employees to send and retrieve business data using mobile phones and other devices. That will develop slower than the general consumer market, he said.

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