Napster made peer-to-peer networks a household term. Now, a few companies are applying Napster's approach to wireless networking, and they've come up with much more than free music.
The drawback to any mobile system, whether it's a wireless local area network (wLAN) in an office complex or a cell network, is the expense of purchasing and installing the infrastructure. Because of the high cost of coverage, networks are inevitably limited and therefore never quite deliver what they could.
Now, two companies have thought up innovative ways to circumvent the inevitable shortcomings of wireless infrastructure. MeshNetworks has rethought the basic architecture of wireless networks. It has developed a system that uses every device on the network as a relay point for the movement of data to a wLAN node or cell tower. SPANworks allows small groups to network their laptops and PDAs together wirelessly without any infrastructure at all.
The wireless communications approach developed by MeshNetworks Inc., a Maitland, Fla.-based startup, can extend the reach of a network and make it more reliable with each user. The company licensed technology from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which uses a distributed network for wireless communications. Rather than having each device communicate directly with the cell tower, MeshNetworks uses every device on the network as relay point as data moves toward a cell tower.
With this approach, a signal will hop from device to device until it reaches a node or cell tower. The more users on the system, the more hops a signal can take on its way to a tower. Unlike a traditional cell system, where an increase in users means a decrease in performance, this system only gets better as more people use it, said Rick Rotondo, vice president of marketing for MeshNetworks.
It's an architecture that is similar to the distributed network used on the Internet, where packets hop from one router to another on their way to their destinations.
"We've taken the architecture of the Internet and made it wireless," Rotondo said.
Charles Golvin, an analyst with the Cambridge, Mass., research firm Forrester Research said this architecture is much more resilient than the current approach to wireless networking and much more efficient.
Possible development for use in autos
It's an approach to wireless communications that intrigued Doug Welch, a wireless network engineering supervisor for Delphi Corp., a Troy, Mich.-based mobile electronics systems company. Delphi has been experimenting with MeshNetworks' approach for possible use with its wireless data systems for automobiles.
With MeshNetworks' system, Welch said, drivers could have better cell coverage over longer distances, particularly during peak traffic times when there are more drivers on the road.
While Welch said the technology is promising, Delphi has not yet deployed it. Welch still has some questions.
"What happens at 2 a.m. when a large section of the network that relies on cars to relay data goes dark?" he asked. Rural areas and sparsely populated suburbs could prove to be problematic areas of coverage for a system like this, he said.
Rotondo said his company is beginning by targeting municipalities that could use the technology for public safety organizations. A network like this would prove to be reliable in the event of a disaster, he said.
This approach can inexpensively address many of the shortcomings of wireless networks, Golvin said. The question, he said, is whether it can gain users and begin to break into the larger systems that manufacturers such as Nokia and Ericsson and carriers such as Sprint have staked their futures on. Being better does not always mean being successful, Golvin said.
SPANworks Inc., a Tracy, Calif.-based spin-off of Toshiba Corp., the Tokyo-based electronics manufacturer, has taken an approach to wireless networking that is focused on businesses. Its system is designed to allow small groups to network their computers together without any more infrastructure than a PCMCIA card.
Rock McKinley, vice president of marketing for SPANworks, said the technology can allow a group of people meeting together to easily share files, pass out electronic business cards, follow a PowerPoint presentation and exchange or share any data they find useful.
"Meetings often take place spontaneously, at lunchtime or at a client's site. With [SPANworks' system] they can share documents when the network is not present," said Andrew Luan, an analyst with the Mountain View, Calif.-based research and consulting firm, Insight on Wireless.
He said consulting teams that often work at a customer's site could find this product useful, as might groups like auditing teams, in which individuals each have very different information they need to share with one other in the home office and on the road.
Socket Communications Inc., a Newark, Calif.-based mobile network product company, is working with SPANworks because it sees potential in the infrastructure-free networking that the company offers.
"Today ad-hoc networking is not very user-friendly," said Leonard Ott, chief technology officer at Socket. SPANworks' product provides a way that these ad-hoc networks can be set up simple and easily, Ott said. It allows people from different companies to share information without worrying about opening up network access to someone from outside the organization.
There is the possibility for multiplayer wireless games and more consumer-oriented group communications, Luan said.
While Toshiba is beginning to ship laptops with SPANworks' networking cards, the applications right now are limited.
Luan said these are early days for both of these technologies. They offer better solutions than those currently on the market, but that is no guarantee of success. With luck, he said, they both won't slide into the same obscurity that trapped the technologically superior but commercially doomed Beta video format.FOR MORE INFORMATION: