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Smart tags help with security, eliminate shipment delays

Unless you have been living in a shoebox, you probably know that computer security has quickly risen to become the top concern among IT executives these days.

Unless you have been living in a shoebox, you probably know that computer security has quickly risen to become the top concern among IT executives these days. Not surprisingly, it is also a growing source of new business and precious revenues for companies that have been struggling to keep ahead of the economic tsunami -- or as the financial wizards night say, "very major correction" -- which has been washing across this country and the world for the past few years. This is good news for a number of smaller companies that have suddenly revamped their technology strategies to focus on security, even though this may actually be a small sliver of their entire product menu.

This is one business segment that shows no sign of shrinking anytime soon. Despite a dismal economy and cautious IT spending forecasts, most companies are looking to assign a considerable percentage of their yearly budget to homeland security efforts. Earlier this year, the Bush administration even proposed an 11% increase in spending (from last year's budget of about $45 billion), with much of this going to increased security and terrorist prevention tactics.

We broke bread with executives from San Diego-based Qualcomm Corp. recently to talk about high-speed 3G wireless systems and strategies targeting the enterprise user, and we were surprised to find out the company has already launched an internal effort that is primarily aimed at homeland security and efforts to apply such technologies as instant messaging and location-aware systems to the government's mandate to keep everyone well informed and as plugged in as possible.

Naturally, we are all for applying mobile, wireless and any other kind of current and emerging technology to such an ROI-centric effort as personal and public safety. Heck, we'd wireless-enable Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's head if this would result in a more secure and safer world. This is why we would like to revisit a topic touched upon in an earlier MMB (March 10, 2003), which involves the use of radio frequency ID (RFID) devices to tag the millions of pieces of items that are shipped worldwide each day -- in particular those products that are transferred over water and through our nation's ports. By using such devices, we can not only increase the number and reliability of security checks, but also improve productivity and ultimately boost revenue and profits for every single company in the U.S.

Basically, RFID tags have embedded microchips that can be programmed with such pertinent information as a product's description and intended travel itinerary. These tags can then be attached to individual products, pieces of equipment, and locked containers, and emit an identifying radio signal that shouts out specifics about the contents of a locked and secured container. Try to tamper with one of these babies, and an alarm is triggered and authorities notified that someone has opened a container without proper authorization.

Triggering a transmission
A good friend of ours at Intel Corp. recently clued us into a couple of companies that are doing some really interesting stuff in terms of electronic tagging. The first is Santa Clara, Calif.-based WhereNet Corp., which has develop systems that can do such things as periodically transmit a product's serial number over a 2.4 GHz wireless network, trigger a transmission if that product or container-load of products passes through an approved dock door or port, and continuously transmit the whereabouts of products as they make their way from Point A to Point Z (and all points in between).

The other company brought to our attention is San Mateo, Calif.-based Bluesoft, Inc., which has developed short range wireless tracking technologies that obviously make use of Bluetooth communications techniques as well as 802.11 WiFi. The company is primarily focused on in-building location-based wireless security techniques that not only can track down rogue access points but help organizations cut down on pilfering and losses -- commonly called shrinkage in the retail business.

Bluesoft claims, for example, that its system can save a mid-size to large hospital and average of $250,000 annually by cutting down on lost or stolen equipment and supplies, and eliminating the time wasted as nurses and doctors go searching for a needed device. Tag the unit and it can be tracked along with every other tagged asset within the hospital (all except for those $10 bandages our insurance company is so fond of telling us about).

We think the use of RFID and wireless positioning systems are the obvious answer to our homeland security problems, especially when you consider the amount of products that are transported reach and every day. Take, for example, the products that are shipped via water and pass through our nation's ports. Right now, about 16,000 shipping containers pass through each port in the U.S. each day, although only about 320 are really opened and inspected at each port. Many of the larger containers are simply marked "said to contain..." on the outside, providing a very vague indication of what exactly is on the inside.

It is logistically impossible to check each and every container that passes through U.S. ports each day because there are just too many shipments and too few authorized inspectors. Also, if you start checking every container, the result would be massive delays and business failures, especially if you are dealing with food products that are prone to spoilage.

Too good to be true?
The solution, then, is to carefully catalog and seal these containers at the point of origin, and tag them with RFID or some other kind of electronic identification so that inspectors can easily track and record their progress. The containers remain sealed, and the contents secure and identified until they reach their destination.

The resulting boost in shipment speeds and productivity would mean that products get to market faster, and companies are more quickly able to turn them around and generate revenues from sales. As revenues increase, so does profitability and the potential to expand jobs and add more people into the workforce. Since shipments progress a lot smoother, and arrive a lot faster, the retail prices charged to consumers may drop, resulting in more disposable cash to buy more products. Everybody wins!

If all of this sounds too good to be true, it is probably because it is -- at least at this point. While companies like the aforementioned WhereNet and Bluesoft are scoring customer wins, and major RFID proponents such as Symbol Technologies and Intel Corp. are pushing hard for further development and deployment, we still have a way to go in terms of standardization, reliability of wireless networks, and adoption. A step in the right direction might be to establish a panel of government and industry leaders to champion such efforts, investigate new technologies and solutions, and then look for ways to apply current technology to today's problems.

Hey, if the world can invent a problem and then develop a solution for easily straining pasta, then we can certainly work to solve the slightly more critical problem of national security. If not, then we are all in serious hot water.

Tatara Systems stakes a claim in merged Wi-Fi, cellular networks
If you have not yet heard of a company called Tatara Systems, Inc., based in Acton, Mass., then today is your day for enlightenment. The startup is scheduled to debut its first product, a Wi-Fi services delivery platform that can be used by cellular wireless carriers to help manage the 802.11 networks and hotspots provided by partner companies, distribute real-time authentication and subscriber information to subscribers, log wireless usage, and manage local content and application information. Essentially, the system is installed as part of an existing cellular network, and allows mobile operators, wire line carriers, ISPs and cable operators to improve the level and breadth of services to their communications customers.

Truth be told, this is really not earth-shattering stuff. The concept of developing a method of managing multiple wireless systems and implementing systems that allow serviced providers to track usage and effectively bill their customers is not a new one. Companies like Ottawa-based Bridgewater Systems, Inc. and Fort Lee, NJ-based Reefedge, Inc. have already pioneered these areas and have managed to build strong customer bases in a short period of time. In fact, when we first met with Tatara executives a month or two ago, we suggested that a better way to approach this market would be to wrap a few applications into the technology and offer a targeted solution for specific industry segments -- for example, an out-of-the-box solution that could be offered to, say, pharmaceutical companies that want to subscribe through their favorite wireless carriers.

Kinetic Talent
So, why are we writing about the company? Well, for one, this small firm has managed to pull together a very impressive engineering team by hiring talent from such companies as Nortel Networks and Lucent Technologies. Tatara has also managed to attract roughly $8 million in funding, which is no small feat in these tough economic times. Basically, we are suckers for kinetic potential, and there seems to be some potential spark here.

Tatara has also managed to develop an interesting engine, designed to easily plug into existing cellular networks. It consists of three components: A subscriber gateway, which obviously manages all of the subscriber data; a service manager, which is a small footprint client that resides on the users PDA or Wi-Fi-enabled notebook computer; and a partner gateway, which manages communications flow, billing and other revenue-related activities. Tatara executives claim a 99.999% reliability rate for the architecture (which, we think, beats even Ivory soap in terms of purity), and insists it is a scalable and standardized technology that requires no additional equipment or proprietary nonsense. Most important is that Tatara promises an ROI payback of about 18 months for Wi-Fi networks, which will cause a lot of carriers to take notice.

The problem, however, is that since this is not new stuff is a lot of present and impending competition out there -- including those activities by a lot of heavyweight players with a lot more money in the R&D bank than several million dollars. But, as we said, Tatara does have that kinetic spark. The company is presently conducting various trials of its technology, and plans a general rollout later this year. Stay tuned!

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