Nine wireless network companies to watch

Smarter smart phones, beyond the BlackBerry and exploiting XML

Wireless and mobile companies you might not know but that are worth learning more about. Specializing in everything from smarter smart phones to going beyond the BlackBerry to exploiting XML data.

Management: Co-founder, President and CEO Lo Alker came to the United States from China in 1960 to attend Arizona State University. She has held the top spots at big and small companies since the mid-80’s, including her start-up Counterpoint Computer, which bought Acer, where Alker eventually became president of Acer America’s sales and marketing group. She headed Network Peripherals through most of the 1990’s, and took it public in 1994. Most recently, she was president and CEO of Amplify.net, which was bought by its Japanese partner in 2004.

How it got its start: In early 2005, Lo Alker, a serial entrepreneur, began visiting with Asian mobile phone vendors and repeatedly heard the same complaint: it took too much time and money to develop products based on proprietary platforms. She became convinced a specialized Linux would have wide appeal and persuaded both co-founder Fred Kiremidjian and Venrock Associated to back her play.

How company got its name: The phrase “a la” means “in the style [or manner] of” and, being French, still has for some at least a patina of class. The name thus suggests the main focus of the company without making the focus too narrow. Plus, “it starts with the letter "a" which makes our company name appear at the top of most listings.” Just like this listing….

Funding: Series A funding, June 2005, of $3.5 million from Venrock Associates.

Who’s using the product: GUPP Technologies, the Malaysian subsidiary of 3P International, selected a la Mobile's Linux stack for its new dual-mode (Wi-Fi and GSM) smart phone.

emoze logo

emoze, subsidiary of Emblaze Group

Founded: March 2006

Location: Raanana, Israel

What it offers: Software that in effect “BlackBerry-izes” any mobile device: it creates a “push” mobile e-mail capability that exploits the native e-mail client loaded on existing mobile phones, ranging from low-end “feature phones” to advanced smart phones running Windows Mobile, Linux or other full-blown operating systems. The software handles secure synchronization of e-mails, scheduling, contact and task data over cellular or Wi-Fi connections, without the expense of dedicated BlackBerry devices or monthly service fees. In August, the company announced support for Gmail users worldwide.

Using the free personal edition, you register at the emoze Website, and the emoze-hosted gateway then keeps track of whatever e-mail service you use. When it finds a new message, it checks to see if you’re online, and if so, it sends the e-mail to your handheld. The corporate edition, now in final stages of development, packages the gateway as a Windows or Linux PC application behind the firewall, where it runs the same functions. No client code is needed, but for advanced operating systems, the gateway downloads a small program that adds some features to a basic native e-mail client. The corporate edition will be available later this fall, priced at $500 per year for up to 50 users. A Professional Version of the personal edition is due out later this year, with added but as yet undisclosed features for a low fee.

Why it’s worth watching: Because it’s a beautifully simple idea – if an infrastructure for push e-mail and PIM synchronization already exists, why not use it instead of paying for something you have to then run yourself? The emoze solution is aimed mainly at the SMB market. You can tell, because it is dirt cheap (personal edition is free; corporate version costs $500 per year for up to 50 users). At least one other company, U.K.-based Synchronica, is taking a similar approach.

Management: Benny Ballin, CEO. Previously was general manager of the messaging business unit within Comverse; was president and CEO of NetEye, which developed an advanced fraud management systems for network operators. Currently co-founder and board member of diaX, a medical technology start-up focused on blood spectroscopy using remote-sensing technology.

How it got its start: Two software engineers at emoze’s parent, Israeli-based Emblaze, were frustrated getting e-mail and PIM synchronized data. They wrote their own program, which Emblaze first adopted and then spun out as a separate company.

How company got its name: This is the most complicated name explanation we’ve ever printed. The two software engineers responsible for the code are both named, in the English transliteration of the Hebrew, “Moshe” (Moshe Levi, Moshe Gani), which is usually rendered in English as Moses or Mozes, with both forms sounding identical. The founders wanted to use “mozes” in the company name but found a California mobile start-up www.mozes.com already uses it. The short form of “Moshe” is “Mosh,” so they shortened “Mozes” to “Moze” and added the “e” for the reason most high-tech companies add that letter to anything.

Funding: Emblaze is bankrolling the company; amount undisclosed.

Who’s using the product: Anyone worldwide who registers here.

Formotus

Founded: October 2005

Location: Bellevue, Wash.

The Formotus service stores, maintains, and links forms like this one with enterprise data sources

What it offers: FormoPublish, a software application and monthly subscription service that manages XML-based data access forms created by users with the InfoPath forms tool in Microsoft Office, distributing them to any Windows Mobile device. Using these FormoApps, downloaded wirelessly, mobile users can access and update any enterprise application that has a Web services interface, without any IT involvement or resources. Users can create their own forms and update or extract any data exposed via a Web service on back-end ERP, CRM or other enterprise systems.

Why it’s worth watching: Formotus exploits, and exploits simply, what mobile users already know and have – InfoPath and Microsoft Office – and what enterprises already have – existing data in back-end applications accessible via Web services. That combination covers an awful lot of corporate data access and update requirements for mobile workers. And it doesn’t require a new IT application development infrastructure or network changes.

Management: Joe Verschueren, co-founder and CEO, with several start-ups under his belt, including ImageX in 1995, for which he eventually raised over $160 million and took public in 1999. Twice a finalist for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year, he was one of the original members of US West NewVector Group, a cellular company now part of Verizon Wireless. Co-founder and CTO is Adriana Neagu, one of the creators of the InfoPath technology at Microsoft, where she worked for a decade on products such as SQL Server.

How it got its start: The founders met when Verschueren, looking for a mobile start-up play, was in talks with Microsoft to create a mobile version of InfoPath. Neagu, looking for a career change after 10 years with Microsoft, was ready for a start-up. Kismet. The founders saw a chance to leverage the then-new InfoPath technology to simplify data access and updates for the growing number of mobile workers.

How company got its name: The prefix “Form” relates to the kind of mobile applications – electronic forms – that the company’s product creates and deploys. “Motus” is Latin for “motion.”

Funding: Total to date is $2.6 million from several angel investors (and board members), including former vice president Elwood Howse, pioneering Oracle database engineer Roger Bamford, and famed Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell.

Who’s using the product: Mobilise IT, a mobile solutions company, is offering FormoPublish as a subscription service to IT customers in Australia and New Zealand.

KORE Telematics, U.S. subsidiary of KORE Wireless Group

Founded: May 2002

Location: Herndon, Va.

What it offers: A mobile virtual net operator, KORE buys wholesale GSM cellular capacity from a group of carriers. What’s different is KORE’s “subscribers”: electric meters, pumps, natural gas pipelines, landfills, semi-trailer trucks, even temporary ATM machines. The company works with over 400 application service providers (ASPs) to wed an array of sensor devices with GSM interfaces to enable machine-to-machine data communications, telemetry, and voice services for monitoring and control. Round the clock, KORE supports services such as specialized VPN interconnects, provisioning and billing, all based on the company’s proprietary software and low-level connections to carrier networks. The company claims to be the largest all-digital provider in the machine-to-machine market.

KORE¹s wholesale cell net collects and sends data from sensors.

Why it’s worth watching: KORE exploits the trends in wireless sensor networking – the ability to more easily collect data from the physical world with miniaturized, long-lived sensors – and leverages them by using widespread GSM cellular networks. It creates a medium to identify, collect and transmit data from almost anywhere to enterprise applications and databases, where it becomes grist for decisions on such critical business issues as return-on-investment, compliance, efficiency and safety. Others in this field include Aeris and Numerex.

Management: Alex Brisbourne, president and one of the four founding investors, most recently a general partner with Aegis Management, a technology incubator, and previously served as general manager for Microcell, a Canadian GSM mobile operator; CEO Chris Scatliff, also a founder, was formerly president and CEO of UUNet Canada (now MCI Canada).

How it got its start: The founders foresaw a market growing quickly to hundreds of millions of sensor units that could supply data vital to businesses. The missing ingredient was a vendor that could marry a highly reliable, digital wide-area network with integration tools and support for ASPs.

How company got its name: The all-caps name deliberately echoes “core,” to suggest a company and product that was central to powering network applications.

Funding: Undisclosed. Investors controlling in excess of 95% of company are Terry Jarman, Chris Scatliff, Richard Burston and Alex Brisbourne.

Who’s using the product: RFTrax uses KORE for its remote asset management telemetry solution for freight transportation companies. The Asset Management Platform for locomotives lets railroads see in real time what’s happening aboard locomotives equipped with the RFTrax transceiver.

Sensor Wireless

Founded: April 2002

Location: Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada

What it offers: Several intriguing products based on the same basic patented technology originally developed for detecting and measuring impact-related damage to fresh fruit and vegetables. You put sensors, a processor and a radio link on a PCB board, design a package around it that mimics the size and shape of an egg or pineapple, and run the device through the same harvesting or processing cycle as the produce to see the damage associated with that process.

But the egg-shaped device¹s sensors and a wireless link let you track and measure the shocks that eggs are subjected to.

The first product was Smart Spud, in 1999 before the company itself was actually launched: a rugged, battery-powered package about the size of potato, with accelerometers to measure shocks that create bruising and a radio to transmit the data to a Palm handheld. The same idea was used in the Crackless Egg, introduced in 2002. Farmers could find crack problems in minutes or hours instead of days. More recently, the company is applying its technology to custom-built acrylic replicas for manufacturing or processing glass objects such as bottles.

The ultimate goal: Being able to track what’s happening to objects as they traverse a supply chain from the point of origin to the final sale or use.

Why it’s worth watching: Even if you’re not a farmer and know nothing about farming, how could you not watch an electronic egg or potato getting roughed up and telling you how it feels? It’s a fascinating example of applying high technology to low technology to improve and maintain quality with measurable data. The company’s success suggests that active RFID, with battery-powered radios, may have a greater impact on supply chain efficiency and quality than passive techniques. Finally, the image of the rolling farmlands that were the site of “Ann of Green Gables” also being Canada’s “Silicon Pasture” is just cool.

Management: Wayd McNally, inventor, president and CEO. Brother David is manager of the company’s agricultural products. General Manager Serge Serviant was recently brought on for his background in business management and administration.

How it got its start: Founder McNally, with a degree in plant science and an entrepreneurial streak, was working as an agricultural consultant, even as he launched a couple of small start-ups. He was granted a patent in 1999 for an “impact detection device for delicate articles.”

How company got its name: Plain as a potato, the name was chosen to reflect the company’s expertise in the use of wireless communications for its sensors and associated firmware.

Funding: About $2 million via convertible debt from an unnamed investor, plus another roughly $520,000 in provincial or federal business grants and rebates. The company has brought in new executive talent and will launch a bid for its first round of venture funding, about $5 million to $8 million, in early 2008.

Who’s using the product: A Who’s Who of the global Fortune 500, including Coors, General Mills, SC Johnson, EG Gallo, Miller and Kraft.

Tango Networks

Founded: October 2005

Location: Richardson, Texas

What it offers: Tango Abrazo, an appliance with software that links almost any existing mobile phone with any enterprise voice system, whether legacy TDM or IP PBXs or hybrids. The enterprise box has to be talking with a companion Abrazo in the carrier’s network. No client code is needed, nor a wireless LAN connection, nor VoIP, although Abrazo supports it. Cell phones are registered and provisioned on the appliances, which talk to each other during the call set-up phase using a Tango SIP-based protocol. Actual call control is handed off to the enterprise PBX, which can, for example, take what started as a cellular call in one office and redirect it over a corporate leased line to a remote office. The mobile phone becomes, and behaves like, an extension on the PBX.

In August, Tango announced support for IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), the foundation of emerging advanced carrier services. But the product continues to support a wide range of legacy carrier architectures and protocols.

Why it’s worth watching: A flock of start-ups and big players are getting involved in this move to fixed-mobile phone convergence. Tango says rivals typically only mimic the PBX services, whereas the Tango appliance makes full use of those on the PBX itself. Also, there are no limitations on the type of phone (or PBX) supported: some rivals require the use of smart phones that have a Wi-Fi adapter, and VoIP. The claim: Whatever cell phone you have “just works” with the corporate phone system.

Management: Co-founders are Doug Bartek, CEO, and Andrew Silver, CTO, who also developed the product and proposed the company and product names. Bartek’s background is in consulting for high-tech start-ups, including his own, a communications semiconductor company called MicroTune that went public in 2000. Silver worked previously for Nortel, voicemail vendor Comverse, and Ericsson, always in wireless telecom.

How it got its start: Silver says he could never figure out why he couldn’t just connect his existing mobile phone to the corporate voice system already in place. So he created Tango to do that.

How company got its name: It was Silver’s idea. “Abrazo” is Spanish for “embrace,” the opening move of the famous Tango dance, which brings two partners together, in this case the mobile network and the enterprise phone network. Silver admits to being able to dance, but not very well.

Funding: $25 million in Series A funding, completed in February; investors are Motorola Ventures, Nortel, Signature Capital, TWJ Capital, and Meridian Capital

Who’s using the product: In trials with several tier 1 mobile carriers on several continents, along with beta tests at select enterprise sites.

Vangard Voice Systems

Founded: December 2001

Location: Rancho Santa Magarita, Calif.

What it offers: “Star Trek.” You are Captain James T. Kirk, or Jean-Luc Picard, of the starship “Enterprise.” “Computer: calculate time remaining until detonation of unknown object.” Soft whirring. Then the disembodied gender-unspecific voice: “Nine hours 23 minutes 36 seconds.”

Vangard’s AccuSpeech, built around the Nuance Communications speech-recognition engine, converts voice input into the underlying data sets that the form and back-end data application understand. The development tool kit is a kind of “Microsoft Visual Studio for speech,” with tools to create grammar for specific applications, to select whether you want the application to talk back to you, and so on, all on a field-by-field basis. You recompile the application, incorporating the Nuance speech-recognition engine, and your application is ready to talk with you.

It can ask you “Did you say such-and-such?” It even lets you use voice as a ‘metatool,’ for example, saying “Normal” to have the software automatically fill in a extensive set of normal or standard fields on a form, such as date, time, your name and bits of customer information from one or more files.

The software now supports Microsoft .Net and the .Net Compact Framework. It works now as an integrated part of the Visual Studio development environment.

Why it’s worth watching: Think of the impact of hands-free data input: a voice interface reduces or even eliminates the need to work with buttons and keys to input lots of data, a big productivity gain for mobile workers in inventory, logistics, healthcare, public safety, government and defense.

How it got its start: The founders previously had worked with voice-enabled education applications. They decided it was feasible to create a software tool to easily embed voice input into mobile applications, allowing users to use speech for inputting data, filling in a form or accessing a database.

How company got its name: The idea is that the AccuSpeech software will be at the forefront of high-quality voice applications for mobile workers.

Management: Robert Bova, president and CEO, previously was CEO of Enfotec, a maker of Internet security devices, and he’s got experience in growing companies: in 1997, he started the ISG divison of Rainbow Technologies, boosting it from $0 to $56 million in revenues in just over three years. CTO Bill Arthur, a Ph.D. in mathematics/computer science from University of Wisconsin, designed the AccuSpeech product. Previously he consulted in text-to-speech and voice recognition, and implemented the voice-activated VCom automobile navigation system from VCommand.

Funding: $3 million in Series A funding, from Berkshire Ventures.

Who's using this product: Vangard sells its software development kit to distributors like Avnet and Ingram, and directly to systems integrators and VARs. Astegic, a systems integrator, used AccuSpeech to create M-Inspector, a mobile application for airport inspections, marketed to the FAA and to airport authorities.

Vettro

Founded: September 2000

Location: New York, N.Y.

What it offers: Vettro 360, a suite of five mobile business applications coupled with an underlying Java-based service-oriented architecture (SOA): sales and CRM, facilities management, field service and repair, IT service management, pickup and delivery.

Vettro 360

The software first downloads a runtime environment based on Java virtual machine created for the user’s specific client device and operating system, and then the selected Vettro application. The 360 application server resides on the vendor’s network operations center or behind the enterprise firewall. The client applications use XPath messages over the wireless network to talk to this server, which is essentially a messaging bus.

The server uses Web services interfaces, APIs and other interfaces based on the Java Connection Architecture to link easily with back-end applications and data. The Vettro code handles a battery of mobility challenges, such as maintaining data persistence on both sides of a transaction if a network connection isn’t available.

Traditionally, applications are written to run on a given computer. But a service-oriented architecture lets Vettro create and deliver applications as metadata in an XML file. The client-based run-time environment reads the downloaded file and "translates" it into an application specific to that client device. SOA applications can be written faster, updated or modified more easily, and delivered to users over the air automatically with no additional changes needed.

Why it’s worth watching: Combines well-designed mobile applications with an infrastructure that exploits the flexibility and adaptability inherent in SOA. Applications are expressed as metadata in XML files that are downloaded to handhelds where the run-time interprets the file based on the device features and operating system, and generates the application that “fits” that device. And Web services interfaces make it much simpler to blend on the handheld data and workflow steps from multiple back-end applications. Dexterra and Antenna Software are two others applying SOA techniques to mobile frameworks and applications.

Management: Joe Rymsza became president and CEO in 2001. Previously, he was vice president of sales and recruiting at software vendor Cysive, helping to boost the company's revenues from $7.7M to $50.3M over three years. He also held sales management titles at Object Design, now part of Progress Software. Yet his original training was technical: he has a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Notre Dame's School of Engineering.

How it got its start: The company’s initial incarnation was in 1999 as iQenergy, a Web and mobile systems integrator. In 2000, it changed the name to Vettro, and shifted from professional services to applications based on a mobile software architecture that could quickly adapt to the varied clients and back ends in the enterprise. It introduced its pickup and delivery application first, followed by a GPS-based mobile dispatch program for BostonCoach.

How company got its name: After “iQenergy,” almost anything might be an improvement, and that’s pretty much what they decided on. The company leadership wanted a new name that had no meaning, and therefore no potentially adverse connotations, but with “some strength or boldness to the way it sounded.”

Funding: Four rounds with a total in the range of $50 million to $60 million, from Globespan Capital Partners; Greylock; Kodiak Venture Partners; New Things; Sigma + Partners.

Who’s using the product: BostonCoach, Carillion, Cigna, Clemson University, General Electric, Hitachi Data Systems and McKesson.

Zenprise

Founded: February 2003

Location: Fremont, Calif.

What it offers: Zenprise for BlackBerry, a server software program that automatically troubleshoots the entire end-to-end BlackBerry wireless e-mail environment.

Zenterprise screen shot

The software constantly monitors and tests all elements in the chain, from the handheld to the enterprise server, to the Exchange server, to the wireless carrier network, to RIM’s own network operations center. Zenprise detects a problem, runs some power analytical tools to sort out what’s wrong, and recommends steps for IT or e-mail administrators to take. A management console shows color-coded rankings of service availability, message latency, pending messages and e-mail inactivity, all vulnerable parts of the mobile e-mail chain.

The latest version, released in July, added simpler views of e-mail system health for line-of-business executives and for mobile users, and new ways for administrators to group and monitor end users.

Why it’s worth watching: Zenprise for BlackBerry software was launched in February 2007. Two months later, when RIM’s North American BlackBerry network crashed, Zenprise customers were perhaps the only people on the continent who knew hours before anyone else that 1) there was a problem, 2) it was serious, and 3) it was in RIM’s NOC. What everyone else saw as a third-party service that customers were dependent upon, Zenprise understood to be a critical enterprise asset that customers needed to manage like any other. The software makes it possible to actually enforce service-level agreements and improve support to mobile e-mail users.

Management: Waheed Qureshi, founder, chairman and CTO. Previously, he launched Zambeel, a start-up that focused on scalable network-attached storage subsystems. Earlier, he worked on eXcelon’s ObjectStore, an early commercial object-oriented database. A member of IEEE and holder of several patents, he has a Ph.D in computer sciences from USC. CEO Jayaram Bhat started at Intel in 1980 as product manager for the Intel 286 processor. From 1993 to 2001, he was vice president of marketing for Mercury Interactive. Most recently, he consulted with CEO’s of various high-tech companies on business strategy and venture funding.

How it got its start: Qureshi took his car in for repairs and noticed the mechanic simply hooked the car to a computer, which instantly diagnosed the problems. He thought about a “digital mechanic” for the enterprise data center: using programs to automatically identify problems with servers or applications, create instructions to solve them, and even predict future problems. So that would make the company’s software a Zenmaster digital mechanic.

How company got its name: From the idea of bringing enlightenment and wisdom to the enterprise through intuitive insight, which sounds pretty Zen-like itself.

Funding: Most recent funding is series C; has raised roughly $22 million to date. Investors are Mayfield, Shasta Ventures and Bay Partners.

Who’s using the product: Among others, the County of Alemeda, Calif., whose IT staff used it to watch RIM’s BlackBerry service wither and die, and Grant Thornton.

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