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Hot Markets for Private Companies

Hot Markets for Private Companies

WBT's VC editor Tim Bresien has been making the rounds to see which industry segments are getting the most traction. Here's his outlook on what to watch for in the wireless arena in the months ahead.

Of all the misguided hype to be washed away during recent years, the concept of "first-mover advantage" may be the most telling. Time after time, venture-funded companies have identified and mapped a perceived marketplace, only to fall by the wayside as the market matures without them. In many cases a first mover positions itself in a new category, but withers on the vine waiting for paying customers to arrive.

"One of the downfalls of the age of excess venture capital is the increased tendency to invent customer problems that don't exist," says Oracle's Jacob Christfort, vice president and CTO of the company's Mobile Products and Services Division. This leads to a situation where "overcapitalized startups get to market early with unnecessary products."

September claimed yet another former highflier in the wireless communications space: General Magic (formerly Nasdaq:GMGC) of Sunnyvale, CA. Over the last decade, General Magic positioned and repositioned themselves in more ways than a contortionist on the vaudeville circuit. As a startup in the early '90s the company developed the Magic Cap operating system for handheld devices, and struck alliances with corporate giants like Sony, AT&T, Apple, Motorola, Philips, British Telecom, and NTT.

A shift from graphic user interfaces (GUIs) to voice user interfaces (VUIs) found them teaming with the likes of Microsoft and marketing their own unified messaging service, known as Portico, by the middle of the decade. By 1999, they had hopped on the Internet express and were offering a free voice-enabled e-mail communications service called myTalk, which attracted over one million "subscribers" in just six months. Most recently, their VoiceXML magicTalk platform led to a relationship with General Motors, and to the subsequent development of the OnStar Virtual Advisor. So depending on your timeline, they were either a PDA OS company, a unified messaging service provider, an Internet voice-mail enabler, or a virtual assistant platform vendor for the telematics market.

One thing they were at all times, it seems, was ahead of their time. Repositioning an impressive portfolio of technology and reappearing each time in a different market space was the company's greatest trick. Unfortunately, each time it did so, General Magic found itself further in front of the pack; further from mass market acceptability, and further from profitability. But give them credit for seeing the future of wireless (or foreseeing the future).

If you remember the paperback-sized Motorola Envoy or Sony MagicLink PDA from 1995, you probably also remember that AT&T rolled out their PersonaLink wireless service in support of these devices. Few people were describing a huge market for Personal Digital Assistants. During this period it looked like the battle for the emerging market might be fought out between Apple's Newton division and a growing group of companies that licensed Magic Cap. General Magic's sky-high IPO the same year may have been the force that launched a thousand Internet and wireless business plans in retrospect.

Now, as the company slides quietly into oblivion and prepares to transfer its Virtual Advisor technology to another OnStar vendor before shutting its doors, we're left to question the wireless market segments that show the greatest signs of life for today's innovative startups. The dot-com disease that infected the communications industry led to an environment where every startup seemed to claim ownership of an emerging growth market. Too much marketing and not enough market research. So let me simply reposition the question: Which segments of the wireless industry are now ready for prime time?

With an ear to the ground, I toured IDG's DEMOmobile conference, HP World, CNA's International Wireless Symposium, and CTIA's Wireless I.T. and Internet conference over a period of about four weeks, and tried to determine where the buzz, the demand, and the investment dollars might flow as we head into 2003.

Micro-market spaces can be described with succinct phrases like "over-the-air firmware update technology" from Bitfone Corporation or "perception chipsets" from Canesta. In addition to growing sectors such as mobile entertainment and MMS, it's apparent that the Application Service Provider (ASP) model has been re-energized in the wireless industry. Companies such as LightSurf, of Santa Cruz, California, and traq-wireless, of Austin, Texas, are establishing leadership positions in the Instant Mobile Imaging and Enterprise Wireless Management areas, respectively.

I met with companies like Vocera Communications, of Cupertino, CA, and saw their innovative solution for mobile personnel within the enterprise. They are highly focused on what you might call the 802.11 Enterprise Voice market. How many competitors they'll have in two years' time is anyone's guess, but the Vocera Communications Badge and server software are market-defining products for sure.

A wearable "badge" allows for voice-activated communications with colleagues and leverages wireless LAN investments, while providing an ideal substitute for in-building wireless phones, intercoms, mobile radios, and unnecessary cellphone usage. Campus workers, hospital staff, and retail facilities are beginning to investigate the possibilities.

Smart Antenna Technology
If you've been monitoring the telecom industry for the past decade or so, you've been hearing about the promise of smart antennas. From the defense industry to PCS and cellular markets, systems with multiple antenna elements and a signal-processing capability have been said to significantly increase signal quality, capacity, and coverage.

Take a look at San Jose's ArrayComm and you'll find a venture-funded company with one foot in the smart antenna market, one foot in the mobile broadband market, and a lot of intellectual property behind them. Headed by Martin Cooper, widely credited with the development of the first portable cellular phone while at Motorola, the company's patented IntelliCell technology creates dedicated personal cells of voice or data for wireless subscribers. ArrayComm's solution is already installed in thousands of wireless base stations around the world, and with limited available spectrum for new mobile networks and increasing global demand, smart antennas are now back in the spotlight. And so is Martin Cooper.

Mobile Broadband
In the race to render current 3G schemes irrelevant due to their seemingly outrageous costs, discussions often center around technologies that might morph a variety of disparate voice and data networks into a cooperative multitiered cloud of wireless coverage. History may repeat as standards bodies are tasked with force-feeding IP data through existing circuit-switched voice networks. Well-funded and highly focused startups have been developing their own ideas from a blank slate for several years now, and are drawing serious attention from cash-strapped wireless operators.

With a Bell Labs pedigree, New Jersey's Flarion is one to watch. The company's RadioRouter base station is designed to function within an operator's existing network and radio spectrum, and provide a seamless routing interface to the existing IP network. Flarion claims that their packet-switched focus will allow direct connections to wired enterprise networks, enabling profitable wireless data services at super speeds, but at one tenth the cost of rolling out 3G.

2003 should prove to be the year that companies like Flarion, ArrayComm, and IP Wireless of San Bruno, CA, sink or swim with their mobile broadband applications. This sector might have been written off as a collection of far-fetched science projects just two years ago, but the tech economy collapse and the reality of expensive 3G network buildouts means that they should get a second look, and a fair trial, with many of the major wireless operators.

Hybrid Chipsets
The term is used loosely, and frequently by companies that are building dual 802.11a and 802.11b processing solutions ­ there is a relative flurry of development activity in this space. Yet the go-go period at the turn of the century, when companies like Broadcom, Intel, and Texas Instruments would scoop up new companies every couple of months to round out their portfolios, is surely over.

The Wi-Fi Alliance boasts a membership which includes a who's who from the networking world, and it remains to be seen whether 802.11 innovation comes primarily from the startup world or from the R&D labs of the companies that are already household names. What's more interesting may be the solutions which integrate the 802.11 WLAN and the newest CDMA and GSM networks.

San Diego's Zyray Wireless falls into the hybrid, or dual-mode category. The inspiration for their "Spinner" series chip was providing an evolutionary path from existing GSM/GPRS semiconductor products to dual-mode WCDMA and GSM/GPRS. As their SPINNERchip 1.0 is being evaluated by handset manufacturers around the world, they have also been busy on a WCDMA­802.11b solution.

Known as the SPINNERchip 2.0, this product line will connect with existing GSM/GPRS products to provide an integrated wireless WAN/LAN solution.

Companies in this field will have to comply with multiple standards, and maximize the use of available spectrum. Zyray is a very focused startup that leverages sophisticated STP (space-time processing) antenna technology to achieve a balance among challenging power and spectral efficiency concerns, and ever-shrinking handset form factors.

Opt-in Mobile Advertising
We're not talking about spam to the cellphone here. At least, not yet. Instead, consumers will initiate interaction with an advertiser by utilizing numeric codes seen on billboards and in magazines, and heard on the radio. Combined with the new generation of data-enabled handsets, companies like Redwood City, CA's SkyGo see a new world where the phone becomes an integral part of advertising strategies.

Their SkyCode short-number system will allow marketing campaigns to take advantage of the unique strengths of mobile data devices, and their SkyServer will allow advertisers to port their images and data to the small screen. Since they've raked in early VC money and have already found success in Europe with movie and airline marketers, this space may heat up. So keep your eyes and ears peeled as SkyGo, San Diego's Adversoft, and others try to make a go of it in the U.S.

Wireless LAN Access Management
Secure, controlled network access and authentication cuts across most every product category today. Any company marketing security-oriented solutions for wireless networks will find a willing listener. Tales of IT departments forbidding their employees from remotely logging on to corporate networks over wireless connections are rampant; jobs may be on the line if just one example of compromised company data reaches the big boss. That same paranoia should continue to fuel the sales of customer-driven, cost-effective solutions.

The enterprise networking giants certainly have a role to play in providing solutions, but startups like ReefEdge, Vernier Networks, and Bluesocket, among others are really making headway with focused products for the enterprise.

ReefEdge, of Fort Lee, NJ, showed off their Connect product suite at the DEMOmobile conference. It's gaining momentum in a number of vertical markets. The ReefEdge solution can work with any vendor's access point hardware and allows a corporate manager to easily create security policies, specify user privileges and permissions, and manage user accounts. The goal of companies in this sector is to centralize the control of wireless LANs and allow IT departments to realize the potential cost savings and productivity leaps that the WLAN market represents. They may even save a few jobs along the way.

In an interesting subcategory that you might call Location-Aware WLANs, you'll find companies like Boston's Newbury Networks and Helsinki, Finland's Ekahau trying to put their positioning software at the top of enterprise wish lists. These solutions allow corporate managers to shape their wireless access coverage areas, identify who's logged on, and push relevant data to them based on their location. Imagine walking through a museum where your mobile device receives a relevant shot of information as you walk from one painting to the next. Now imagine all of the applications this technology will have throughout the corporate world, and even into the public LAN arena.

Persistent Connectivity
This LAN is your LAN. This WAN is my WAN. But you won't care because you'll seamlessly maintain your data transfers and network connections as you pass securely through multiple handoffs. That's the promise anyway. Companies in this business are probably also into wireless access management, and it is likely that we'll see a high degree of differentiation from startups that drill down and into specific vertical industries.

A great business case in this space involves the police officer, whose vehicle or handheld device securely identifies and transitions between wireless LANs, 2.5G, and even mobile radio networks. On the way to a crime scene, the officer may be receiving photos, location data, or even video while driving through both low- and high-speed coverage areas ­ and never losing a secure connection.

This concept is personified by the people at Seattle's NetMotion Wireless. They showed off their NetMotion Mobility 4.0 software solution at DEMOmobile, which allows users to maintain enterprise-level authentication and encryption while they roam between and among wireless networks.

Leverage, existing, infrastructure. These three words will probably be attached to every successful venture in the mobile sector for the foreseeable future. Headline you'll never see: "New Wireless Operator Completes Nationwide 3G Network Buildout Ahead of Schedule." Keep an eye on the companies that are trying to carve out a leadership position where none currently exists. Market segments tend to be validated after half a dozen venture-funded startups bring similarly focused concepts to light. The ones that stand alone sometimes do so because they are too far ahead of the demand curve.

Technologists and entrepreneurs sometimes develop concepts that are "as far from earth as they can be," says Leonid Kitainik, general manager of Pen & Internet. A division of Parascript, whose advanced handwriting and data recognition technology processes over 60,000,000 documents each day for organizations such as the U.S. Post Office and Chase Manhattan Bank, the company traces its roots to the Computing Center of the Academy of Sciences in Russia 25 years ago. The market has been evolving since then.

ParaGraph International, whose CalliGrapher technology was acquired by Microsoft and whose handwriting recognition software was licensed to General Magic's Data Rover PDA spinoff in the mid '90s, was Parascript's predecessor, and provided an ideal proving ground for the advanced handwriting and notes recognition technology that many of us use today on our Palm and PocketPC devices.

"But at the end of the day," continues Kitainik, "It comes down to working with real customers. To succeed, you must recognize the future demand, and be in touch with users as they shape the idea into a practical product."

Segments are easy to identify. But which companies have positioned themselves too close to the cutting edge? And which companies have that perfect combination of foresight and customer awareness? The market always seems to decide.

More Stories By Tim Bresien

Tim Bresien is WBT's VC editor, the principal consultant with infraStar, Inc., and a freelance writer covering investments in the wireless communications sector. He is a former research analyst with the telecommunications consulting firm of Bond & Pecaro, Inc., Washington, DC, and a cofounder of the Telecom Investor Forum, held annually at SUPERCOMM.

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