Cell Phones, GPS and Wi-Fi Take Center Stage at DemoMobile

Reporter's Notebook: Jim Louderback liked what he saw in a number of the mobile devices displayed at DemoMobile.

LA JOLLA, Calif.—DemoMobile producer Chris Shipley opened up the annual show Thursday by backtracking on last years pronouncement of the age of "device computing," instead saying that it is time to focus on the services and software architectures that enable the mobile platform. The show is full of services, yes, most lacking distribution and many requiring that consumers adopt a bevy of monthly fees to take advantage of them.

And even with Shipley putting services front and center, in the end it was the devices that got the most attention, including RIMs new Blackberry 7100t phone and a range of other devices.

Heres a look at what caught my eye, as examples of how mobility is changing business:

  • Xora GPS Time Track: Many phones today include GPS, but very few applications actually use them. Thats because GPS is mostly passive, available only for 911 calls. Only Nextel really makes use of the GPS hardware in its cell phones. That functionality has allowed service provider Xora to roll out some interesting functionality for field-based service organizations—an ability to track field workers and to create a time sheet electronically. It also lets you locate the nearest worker to a particular address, which is handy when you want to divert someone to handle an emergency.

Its a pretty nifty solution for small businesses, but it doesnt appear to scale well above 30 or 40 field workers. The company rolled out a Version 2.0 Thursday, which lets administrators create digital fences, so they can be alerted when an employee either leaves a work area as defined by a "fence" or enters a restricted area. Of course, the system can be circumvented if the user leaves the phone in the building, but its a neat feature.

In addition, the new "data shuttle" lets the system work with more traditional scheduling applications. Thats definitely necessary, as the system itself will not let you enter in a number of jobs and then auto-assign them based on priority and optimal route.

My take: Xoras a neat use of GPS, but it would be better off as a feature of a broader offering. Its not too expensive though—just $12 per month per employee, and $25 to set up. Hey, you could even give it to your kids so you can track them as they move around town! Of course, theyd be forced to use one of those uncool Nextel phones, but thats the way it goes.

  • WiFlyer: Everything old is new again! When Apple released its first Airport, it included both an Ethernet and a dial-up port. Back then, broadband was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, and many early users used the hub to wirelessly bridge AOL or Earthlink.

Today its almost impossible to find a Wi-Fi router with a phone port. Thats not a big deal for most home users, but for business travelers looking to add wireless to their hotel rooms, a pocket-sized router with both connections offers the best of both worlds.

Thats what startup Always On Wireless is bringing to market. Its WiFlyer hub makes dial-up connectivity easy, allowing users to save log-in and passwords inside the unit.

The unit also includes a current list of AOL, Earthlink and MSN dial-up numbers—but oddly, for a business-oriented product, no iPass. Alas, that list does not auto-update. You have to force an updated number list to the unit when things change.

The device itself is small and simple—even the power adapter is svelte. Its perfect for the constant business traveler who may not always be lucky enough to stay in a broadband-enabled hotel. At $150, its a bit expensive, but for many the convenience will outweigh the cost.

  • XDA3: Good Technology spent a few minutes on stage updating the audience on its service, rolling out support for new phones, including Motorolas new sexy—but flawed—MPC.

My eye was drawn, however, to the XDA3, a new Pocket PC phone from Taiwanese manufacturer HTC. The XDA3 is due in the United States soon, on both CDMA and GSM networks.

It includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPRS and other data networks, and will cost around $500. It supports the Goodlink technology as well, and according to Goods representative, the battery life is actually good enough to last an entire day of heavy use.

I was most impressed with the slide-down keyboard and the big, bright screen. Maybe this will be the PDA/phone Ill finally adopt. For pictures of this ultra-cool device, check out my DemoMobile photo gallery.

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