The ‘dot-bomb’ scared off many potential investors in m-commerce start-up companies but while the major mobile companies are stuck in the economic slump, the smaller, newer, more flexible business are carving out new niches in B2B support services, applications and content development. This article investigates the new innovative start up companies and what they have to offer. Written in 2005.

Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise is (or will be?) a bit of a history buff. Should he decide to look back over the evolution of our planet from his 23rd century vantage point, he might conclude that there have been two great cataclysms since the Earth became habitable. The first was when an extraterrestrial rock plummeted into the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. The other was in the 21st century when the NASDAQ share index plummeted from 5,000 points to below 2,000 in 12 months and all those new dotcoms stared extinction in the face.

The two events may not seem as dissimilar as at first thought. When the ill wind blew from the East and the big lizards keeled over, down in the undergrowth new life stirred and our mammalian ancestors exploited a new opportunity for dominance. Nowadays, while all around lie the rotting carcasses of once proud and seemingly indomitable Net ventures, scuttling about in the undergrowth is a new species of business that has decided it’s time to evolve.

But let’s not forget that not all the old lizards keeled over. Much like those great survivors Crocodiles, Microsoft, IBM, Palm and Nokia seem to have been around for eternity. But whilst the Crocs are happy to wallow in their own longevity, the old IT timers picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and continue to invent and innovate for a slice of the new M-Commerce world.

MSN has decided to join battle with the likes of Palm and Symbian by teaming up with US wireless operators Audiovox Communications Corporation and Toshiba to offer a hybrid PDA and mobile rolled into one. Called Thera, it’s a hand-held that supports both voice and data transmission.

Trouble is, with Handspring, Kyocera and Nokia all using it’s rival’s platforms, MSN may have an uphill struggle, made no easier by the fact that Thera doesn’t support Java – the favoured platform for many key wireless operators. Although Germany’s Deutsche Telekom said it would support Microsoft’s .NET framework, will anybody else or will Thera just become an old fossil?

Palm confirmed it’s higher status on the wireless evolutionary ladder by announcing its launch of a branded Web browser optimised for handheld devices. It uses compression technology that downloads text rapidly and is customised to display Web pages on small screens.

Palm said that its new product boasts all the standard functions users have come to expect from a browser, including the ability to bookmark sites and categorise favourites. The US$19.95 Browser for the Palm m125, m130, m500, m505, m515 and i705 hand sets is available in the U.S. via download from April 8 2002. Localised versions in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese will emerge at the end of that month and in other regions through third-party vendors.

Trouble is, whatever PDA you buy, you usually have to put up with the fact that it will only run on a specific operating system uniquely built for it’s microenvironment. For an Exec on the go with no time to sit and read a manual, getting to grips with a new way of doing things can be a pain. Not any longer, thanks to Tiqit (Tiny ubiQuitous Technology). The company has just unveiled a hand held computer able to run on the trusty and familiar Windows, Linux or Unix desktop operating systems.

Slightly larger than a standard PDA but a darn site easier than lugging your desktop around with you, the ‘Eightythree’, as it has been dubbed, measures just 5.4 inches long, four inches wide, one inch thick and weighs only 20 ounces.

Alyssa Weiskopf, a spokesperson for Tiqit said that the decision to avoid using a traditional PDA OS was because Windows, Linux or Unix gives the Eightythree “much greater functionality than with Windows CE or Palm OS or Pocket PC, for that matter.”

With a CPU spinning at 266 to 300 Mhz, 128 or 256 Mb of RAM, a huge 10GB hard disc, laptop quality LCD screen, USB port and keyboard, Tiqit’s new baby is about as close to a pint-size PC as you can get.

“Almost anything you can do on a laptop or PC, you can do on Eightythree only it is smaller and more mobile,” said Ian Blasch, CEO of Tiqit.

Whilst all these hardware manufacturers are trying to trample each other into the mud, new software developers are emerging out of the primordial slime. These may be hard times for dotcoms, but that hasn’t put off software makers from continuing to develop new technologies and services to boost and strengthen the quality of the wireless Web in an effort to rejuvenate e-commerce, stimulate m-commerce and support brick-and-mortar companies.

A Company called Blue Wireless has broken surface recently to join the ranks of Joltage Networks and Sputnik as the new WiFi kids on the block. Like WiFi Metro, Wayport and Boingo, Deep Blue has engaged in an increasingly competitive ‘survival of the fittest’ struggle for a piece of the WiFi revenue pie.

All of these companies are attempting to make money out of the expanding 802.11 user base. With forecasts of 20 million people exploiting 90,000 wireless LAN ‘hotspots’ in airports, restaurants, hotels and cafes by 2006, start-ups like Wayport are hoping to make money from tiered individual and corporate subscriptions to their services. Deep Blue, Joltage and Sputnik, however, are taking a revenue sharing approach by enabling individuals and corporations to become their own mini wireless ISP networks or ‘Hot Spot Providers’, sharing subscription revenue with the originators in return for hassle-free, ‘out of the box’ infrastructure and support.

Deep Blue, for example, ships all of the necessary equipment to businesses pre-configured, supplies marketing materials and user instructions and provides a dedicated Web page with private labelling to enhance the location’s Web presence.

If that wasn’t enough, Deep Blue goes all the way by providing a proprietary authentication and credit card billing system. With end user subscriptions set at US$19.95/month or US$8.95 per day, Deep Blue reckons the set up fee of US$100 per month would be clawed back quickly.

Sputnik Inc and Joltage Networks offer similar fare to Deep Blue as a free software download. Sputnik’s WiFi ‘Affiliates’ can enjoy a built-in router, a firewall, and SSL-based authentication to protect both themselves and other users.

David Sifry, CTO at Sputnik said, “We have also seen tremendous developer interest in extending the platform in areas like virtual private networking (VPN) applications, voice-over-IP (VoIP), mesh routing, and enterprise wireless applications. We released the core Sputnik gateway code as open-source software under the GPL because we view the open-source development community as the world’s most dynamic, creative development lab. Sputnik is working with developers to build the ‘Apache’ of wireless access.”

But with log-in to Sputnik’s shiny new services based on the now ancient user ID and password model, they may want to take a look at a whole new breed of security software evolving in the wings.

Anyone remember Star Trek II – The Wrath of Kahn? Made in 1982 it featured Captain Kirk accessing top secret computer files via Retina Scan, whereby his identity was authenticated by the unique pattern of blood vessels in his eye. To an impressionable youth like me it all seemed very far-fetched, but the future is closer than you think.

A growing number of developers have got their eye on the next generation of wireless security protocols using Biometrics. Biometrics is the ability to identify people using fingerprints, hand geometry, face and voice recognition. The Biometrics Boffins hope to replace all those easily hacked passwords protecting your bank accounts or valuable corporate data stored in laptops and PDAs with unique bits of your body no computer geek can decode.

The International Biometric Association trade group predicts sales of fingerprint sensors, facial scanners and voiceprint analysers will reach US$600 million by 2003, so the number of developers working to bring Biometrics to wireless devices is also burgeoning.

There’s Fujitsu’s Sweep Sensor that compares fingerprints from cell phones and PDAs with a database, and Targus, who recently announced a retractable fingerprint reader for IBM ThinkPads. Just 6.5mm square, the sensor array is the worlds smallest fingerprint reader and perfect for mobile devices. To overcome the problem of dirt, grime and age altering the surface of the finger, the device reads your ‘true’ fingerprint from below the first layer of skin.

As any Trek fan knows, if there are Klingons off the port bow and you want to blow up your own Starship before they board, you ask the computer to recognise your voice and issue the self-destruct code. SchlumbergerSema and developer Domain Dynamics Ltd are working on turning that fantasy into reality by using a caller’s voice as identification. If the phrase spoken upon powering-up your mobile doesn’t match the voiceprint stored on the SIM card, the phone becomes inoperable, the carrier is alerted to the phone’s location and the phone de-activated. The voice ID system comes on a standard Java SIM card and is included with Mitsubishi’s Trium Mondo GSM/GPRS PDA phone.

But if that nefarious Klingon captures you and forces you to blurt your access codes at gun point, how do you thwart his cunning plan? Canada-based AcSys Biometrics Inc. recently announced one of the first facial recognition systems for wireless devices. The company says its technology integrates facial recognition with wireless e-mail or building access.

But what of Kirk’s eyeball scan that seemed fantastical not so long ago? A consortium called OASIS has invented one of those 300 years ahead of schedule. OASIS is already promoting its XML-based Common Biometrics Format (XCBF) which standardises existing proprietary methods of describing not only fingerprints and iris scans but also DNA – the very building blocks of life that make you who you are.

As the fossil record tells us, life on Earth has been a series of great mass extinctions followed by the blossoming of a new diversity of life. Technology is no different. With today’s current frenzy of technological innovation, you can be sure it won’t be long before our voice/face/finger/DNA-activated mobiles recognise and act upon those immortal words: “Beam me up Scotty.”

Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash