Seeking Traction for Wheels of Zeus

Wheels of Zeus has some hot technology and a grand vision, but its bottom-up approach to network development and reliance on partnerships could makes for a long road ahead.

This week, more details were released about Steve Wozniaks new venture, Wheels of Zeus (WoZ), which had previously released little more than its former tag line, "Helping everyday people find everyday things." This has recently been shortened to the simpler yet far less specfic, "Helping people."

WoZ intersects with wireless in several ways. To find items practically anywhere, its system takes advantage of the global reach of GPS. The company recognizes in-building limitations of that technology, though, and has thus planned what could be a clever hybrid network consisting of potentially thousands or millions of base stations like Wi-Fi, but with a range closer to that of Family Radio Service.

Also in contrast to Wi-Fi, these base stations will communicate with their tiny client nodes via a low-cost (about $25 for the GPS/radio combination), low-speed (about 1200 baud), low-power local wireless network called WozNet that seems conceptually similar to the Zigbee Alliance. Finally, in addition to such everyday pocket fodder as keys and wallets, many of the gadgets with which it will likely be used are mobile or wireless—handhelds, Game Boys, cell phones, and such.

I say the approach "could be" clever because WoZ has given mixed signals about the kind of coverage customers will be able to expect. It seems clear that it will allow for remote monitoring, but while a company presentation says that the WoZ platform will provide "the ability to monitor, track or locate someone or something no matter where it is," it also notes that the technology "has greater range [than Wi-Fi] and the ability to increase range to match cellular or paging networks."

The presentation also notes that WoZ is working with partners that can grow its network quickly and cheaply, but includes a diagram that shows a range of tens of miles from a hill. I can just see all those geeks in Redmond hoofing it up Mount Rainier to find the Pocket PC they left in Conference Room 3B.

In any case, like other "bottom-up" networks such as Wi-Fi, it appears as if it will take significant time before WizNet reaches a point where it can really fulfill its vision. Think back to the spotty reliability in the early days of cellular. In a best-case scenario, it will take years before we have coverage of even the path an average commuter takes during the day. Wheels of Zeuss technology will be only as good as its coverage.

Yet, as Allan Sherman sang as the voice of the Cat in the Hat in, "Calculatus Eliminatus," "The way to find a missing something is to find out where its not." That means that in order to track down a prized possession you may have left at work, there may need to be a base station nearby. Youll need good luck if you dropped it on the street, and perhaps the help of Zeus himself if you dropped it in Greece or another country while traveling.

One of the most promising applications for Wheels of Zeus technology is finding lost animals or children. But if youre wondering where oh where has your little dog gone, you may not know if she has wandered out of range unless a Wheels of Zeus partner releases dog tags that embed GPS directly. The company has focused on cost reduction, but it has a long way to go to make the valuable yet pricey service of companies like Wherify affordable.

Iconic Woz vs. Ionic Breeze

But perhaps misplacements are like accidents in that most of them occur around the home. In that case, there are already a number of inexpensive products from adult toy stores like The Sharper Image and Brookstone that can track objects close to their base stations.

The tags from both camps currently look too large and unwieldy to keep on a pair of glasses or most jewelry not draped around the neck of Mr. T. WozNet devices are far more sophisticated than these simple products, and can generate alerts and even text messages, but the cost of WoZs technology is also far greater.

The most capable of the cheaper devices can track only up to four things. However, how many things do you routinely misplace? Keys? PDA? Wallet? Remote control?

What about your cell phone? Well, if youre the type who is inclined to lose one of these things, with any luck youve been smart enough to sign up for loss insurance for a few bucks per month. If there is a subscription charge for WozNet, I cant see how it can stand a chance of reaching critical mass. On the other hand, if WozNet can reach critical mass, it would serve as an effective theft deterrent assuming that the companys chips were well-integrated into devices. Even before he announced its executive team, Steve Wozniak noted that the company would seek to embed its technology within consumer products. Imagine being able to track the thief who stole your camera? It would be like a Lilliputian LoJack.

Much remains to be revealed about Wheels of Zeuss technology, partnerships, network, and price. It would be a shame if short-sighted partners failed to develop the technology to a point where it could truly be useful. For now, though, those who see it as a panacea for possessions should be careful not to lose their heads.

Is Wheels of Zeus rolling down the right path or is it heading for a spinout? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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