Feature: Embedded device vendors focus on laptops

Carriers may envision all types of devices and appliances being embedded with wireless connectivity but vendors don't necessary share that view.

Mobile carriers might drool at the prospect of linking their subscribers to their networks by embedding technology into every device from a cell phone to a refrigerator, but the vendors that build the devices see things a little differently. Not every device needs embedded wide area network connectivity or even mobility: WiFi might just do the trick for a lot of non-commercial devices--at least for the start.

"I don't think we're going to be looking at this so much in the consumer space...maybe your car (with GSM) but I'm not sure your home appliances," said Kyp Walls, director of product management at Panasonic Computer Solutions Company.

Panasonic laptops connect to the mobile network. This field has been plowed already by PC cards and USB dongles but new software flexibility makes it possible to plant the software into the devices themselves for enterprise and government customers with a "need to connect everywhere" who find mobile connectivity is "a little addictive; you feel like if you didn't have connectivity in the taxi and airport and everywhere else you couldn't do your job," he said.

Qualcomm's Gobi initiative, which lets IT managers provide global mobile connectivity by using devices that can be reconfigured in the field to support mobile operators and mobile broadband technologies including EVDO and UMTS, is a big reason the software can move from external to internal.

Gobi's customer list includes computer makers Acer, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Lenovo and Panasonic along with all the major carriers.

"That used to be a barrier for people to adopt an embedded solution because they couldn't commit to a particular carrier. Gobi absolutely eliminates that barrier for embedded wireless technology," Walls said.

Another way to enable network interconnectivity is to use a company such as Jasper Wireless which has "created an MVNO look-alike where they're independent of carriers," said Arun Bhikshevsvaran, CTO and vice president of North American strategy for Ericsson.

Since Ericsson embeds mobile modules into laptops now and it plans to move to other consumer electronics in the future. But having an open network makes it easier to focus on building and certifying cross-platform modules.

"If I certify the module for Lenovo and AT&T, the same module goes into a Dell computer or an Apple computer. As far as network connectivity, the network is turned on to the same exact module" and that module, thanks to someone like Jasper, can operate across different networks, Bhikshevsvaran said.

Interconnectivity is why Jasper exists, said Cindy Patterson, executive vice president of sales and marketing, at Jasper Wireless "Jasper built its system from the ground up just to serve connected devices [with] provisioning systems, billing systems and diagnostic systems that are all part of our software.

"It's software that makes it so that someone doesn't need to understand wireless. They don't need to understand the underlying network that the device is using; they just have to look at the user interface and the direction they want to go," she said.

As an example, a medical service could equip patients with wireless monitoring equipment that "turns on and just works out of the box," she said.

This type of application crosses between mobile wide area networks and portable fixed area networks and the devices can do the same.

"A whole class of devices can benefit and change with the addition of WiFi," said Lisa Payne, vice president of marketing for G2, a company that builds "low-end" integrated WiFi chips.

WiFi can handle home-based applications ranging from so-called smart refrigerators to energy-efficient applications. The available-everywhere applications can be handled using embedded mobile technology, she suggested.

The greater number of embedded devices might, therefore, start as WiFi-enabled and as necessary move outside the home using 3G or 4G wide-area networks. For now, the big push in embedded devices is to place the technology inside the laptop which is probably already equipped with WiFi and could be equipped with yet another wireless technology, WiMAX.

Lenovo hedged its wireless bets by becoming one of the first laptop makers to comply with Sprint's Xohm network in Baltimore, specifically because "WiMAX fits right alongside WiFi or 3G broadband, Bluetooth and even ultra-wideband," said David Critchley, worldwide segment manager for Lenovo ThinkPads. "We always try to be one of the first to the market when new communications technologies are available."

For Panasonic, 3G, especially with Gobi, is the way to go.

"Gobi is making it much easier to convince customers that they should get the radio right up front because they don't have to make a [carrier] choice," Walls said. "We put a piece of software on there with a Gobi radio...and tell the radio and the machine which network they want to communicate on. They don't have to decide beforehand if they're going to use AT&T, Sprint or Verizon."

While other embedded devices will quickly follow, laptop connectivity is driving today's market and those laptops will first focus on business customers then migrate to more casual users.

"We're in process with many operators around the world now...that are going to come to market with our software," said Jasper's Patterson. "Some of them love our software for their business channel and also feel that's a way to get a lot of consumer electronics to market. There's going to be a mix of B2B devices and consumer devices. We definitely see a split between both."