Hand-To-Hand Content

It might be the quickest - and most painless - way to send wireless Internet content to handheld computers.

It might be the quickest — and most painless — way to send wireless Internet content to handheld computers.

WideRay, a San Francisco start-up, last week launched a system that will let users of Palms and other smart handheld devices download location-specific information via infrared networking from wall-mounted access points.

Unlike similar systems from adAlive and Streetbeam, WideRays Jack box — about the size of a paperback book — is a self-contained, battery-powered unit that retailers or other businesses can install practically anywhere. The boxes, sold as a service priced from about $100 per month for a single Jack, receive content updates through the nationwide Flex paging network.

Sony, one of WideRays first customers, has installed four Jacks in the foyer of its Metreon entertainment complex in San Francisco, which has about 10 million visitors per year. The network lets handheld users access a map of Metreon, shopping and event information, movie showtimes and interactive coupons. Other customers include Land Rover, Stanford University and the San Francisco Giants, which plans to use WideRay Jacks to distribute digital baseball cards.

"Theres huge untapped demand for getting contextual information when youre not at home or at the office, when you see something you want more information on in a store or at an event," said Saul Kato, WideRays CEO and co-founder. "Weve built the infrastructure to allow that."

When a user accesses a WideRay Jack, the unit sends down a 75-kilobyte client application. The client includes a stripped-down Web browser and proprietary infrared networking technology that allows multiuser access and extends the infrared beams range to 15 feet. To distribute content, a WideRay customer uploads Web content, which is then reformatted for the WideRay client software and instantly broadcast over the Flex network to the customers Jacks.

WideRay is first pursuing retailers that want to provide an interactive marketing tool in their brick-and-mortar stores. WideRay envisions selling its wireless access points to corporations and trade show companies, which could let attendees beam exhibit information to their Palms. The company also sees a rapidly growing base of end users: IDC expects more than 63 million smart handheld devices to ship by 2004.

But will faster wide-area wireless Internet networks make WideRays service obsolete? Not by a long shot, said Seamus McAteer, senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix.

High-bandwidth wireless Internet connectivity "is a pipe dream — especially in the U.S. — and this is precisely the reason that well-conceived platforms like WideRay will have an addressable market," he said.