Two Interesting Technology Developments
Some Things are Useful Right Out of the Box
By Roger L. Kay
Industry analysts in the information technology space (and maybe everywhere) are a breed apart.
We’re neither fish nor fowl. We are paid by and represent the industry, but we often disseminate
our ideas through the media. Our product is both informative and suspect.
In a recent column by one of our ranks, the author named various companies in the context of
technology developments and news of the day. Some of his descriptions were positive and
others, not so much. In the comments section, an astute reader tried to guess, based on the
tone, which companies mentioned in the piece were the author’s paymasters. The guesses were
It is an ill of our trade that we must try to cast the works of our sponsors in as good a light as
possible, but must also strive for objectivity. This truism applies to both the big firms and the
boutiques. The most visible of us trudge ever higher on a razor ridge, like the one leading to the
top of Mount Everest. Down one side is Tibet; down the other, Nepal, thousands of feet below.
The altitude is our visibility; the valley floors, our errors, waiting to consume us. The higher we go,
the farther the potential plunge. I’ve kicked a few rocks off both sides, scrambling to stay on the
For this reason, I will talk here about two technology developments that genuinely impress me,
without reference to their provenance. They are useful and even fun. I may mention clients, but
will flag them as I go along.
Mobile Boarding Passes
This quarter, I have been traveling from Boston to California almost every week. In fact, four out of
five weeks have required cross-country travel. I could stay in California, but a combination of
wanting to be home with my family and the lovely weather in New England this time of year has
kept me making the crossing twice a week.
About two years ago, I switched from American Airlines (not a client) to United (also not a client).
The reason is pure and simple: United has a far better schedule of non-stop flights between the
two cities. About two weeks ago, United introduced mobile boarding passes, essentially an
online check-in procedure that involves clicking on some links that cause a stripped-down image
of a boarding pass with seat assignment, departure, and gate information as well as a two-
dimensional barcode to be sent to an email address. Any phone with a browser can pick it up.
I happen to have an Apple (not a client) iPhone, which, among other attributes, has a fine
browser. Safari on an iPhone has room for eight stored windows. The first time I saw the bright
red “new!” curlicue-italic script scrawled across the top of the mobile-boarding-pass option on the
United Web check-in page, I thought, let’s give this a try. Not having to deal with paper could be a
A few clicks later I was staring at the enigmatic square dot-pattern of the 2D barcode. I wondered
how this was supposed to work. After all, I had to clear TSA as well as the gate Next morning, I
went down to Logan and approached TSA. When I held up the phone, the agent motioned toward
a box I had never seen before. The box had a small window about the size of a phone. I had
carefully avoided calling any new web pages until boarding so as to keep the code at the top of the
stack. I clapped my phone to it, face down. Nothing happened. I pulled the phone back and
looked at it. The accelerometer had actuated, causing the page to turn sideways and partially
obscure the code. I kept my head and rotated the phone, righting the image. This time, a beep
sounded, and the agent let me through.
At the gate, still around 1,500 miles short of Premier Exec, I nonetheless hung around the tail end
of First call, figuring no one would know I hadn’t earned the right if I simply held up my fancy phone
and let myself on board. I was careful this time to get the orientation right and whip the phone
down in a smooth, upright motion so as not to set off the accelerometer. Sure enough, the gate
agent waved me right through, even while busting some lower-stature guy with a paper boarding
At San Francisco, coming back, TSA took the phone out of my hand, which made me
uncomfortable and highlighted one of the benefits of the mobile boarding pass: when you hold
your own phone, you retain a shred of control over your life, something of which there is precious
little in the air-carrier biz these days. I determined that in the future I would simply preempt the
grab and alacritously swipe the code myself so as to retain this scrap of dignity. Later trips in
both directions confirmed my hypothesis. TSA didn’t want to hold my phone; it just wanted to keep
The next week, in Boston again for the flight back to San Francisco, I was getting overconfident
and careless. I had checked in the night before and downloaded the boarding pass, but had
meanwhile looked at a large number of web pages relating to the morning’s news. As I rolled my
bag out of Massport parking and onto the moving walkway heading into the United terminal, I
realized that I’d moofed my boarding pass out the back end of my browser queue.
No problem. Thanks to stellar design by Apple (still not a client), I was able to get back into email,
find the boarding-pass-generator page, and fetch a fresh copy from the Web — all before the
walkway ended. With fresh copy in hand, I sailed down the escalator.
If I had been upgraded (all the more likely because now I really am Premier Exec), the new pass
would have shown the new seating.
This I like a lot. It’s simple and robust and eliminates both steps and paper. This is what
technology was meant for.
The other technology I would like to highlight is the femtocell. This technology is still in the early
adoption phase. A femtocell is essentially a little cell tower that you put in your own environment,
typically house or office, to get better reception. The tower is about 9” tall and puts out a limited
signal over an area of about 5,000 square feet. The initialization process involves registering on a
Web page the phones you want to have access to the tower. This procedure keeps your
neighbors from using your access.
Having an iPhone, naturally I also have AT&T (not a customer), and AT&T charges $150 before
taxes for the tower, which it calls a Microcell, perhaps because testing showed that nobody knows
what a femtocell is. From mathematics, femto- is a prefix denoting a quadrillionth, something a
thousand times smaller than pico-, which is itself a thousand times smaller than nano-, which
begins to be something we’ve heard of that is yet a thousand times larger than micro- or one
millionth. But it’s not about mathematical rigor here; it’s about marketing, and being
comprehensible to your audience is important in marketing. After all, your little cell tower is not a
quadrillion times less powerful than the tower that nominally supplies signal to your area from a
hopefully propitious nearby hill.
Now, some people are irked by having to spend $150 to obtain cell service that they feel they have
already paid for, but the carriers are not magicians, and my home office sits in a sort of well, a
depression in the landscape. Between me and the nearest tower lies a small cliff at the edge of
an escarpment. The signal flies right by about 100 feet over my head. For me, the femtocell is the
perfect thing, and I’m happy to pay a one-time fee to rectify an accident of topography for which
AT&T is in no way responsible.
Formerly, I got only the faintest of signals and often didn’t receive calls at all. If someone was
trying to reach me urgently, the call and subsequent voicemail often didn’t register. I’d get no
notification. With cable from Comcast (not a customer), my data stream is plentiful. My Cisco (not
a customer) wireless router keeps the iPhone’s email, weather, and stock quotes up to date. But I
was getting virtually no 3G voice, a disaster when CNBC calls at dawn to ask whether I can rush
down to the studio to do a segment on breaking tech news.
Enter the femtocell, also by Cisco. All of a sudden, I have five bars all over the house as well as
outside and even down to the detached garage below. You could say I’m doing AT&T a favor
here. After all, I’m supplying the backhaul. My digitized-voice bits are flying down my high-speed
digital link and therefore relieving AT&T’s 3G network. But I don’t begrudge my carrier the relief.
The benefit to me is huge. The solid connection has already made a tremendous difference.
In the autumn, Qualcomm (attention: customer sighting) will be launching a more sophisticated
femtocell through its OEM partners. The Qualcomm solution will have dynamic range adjustment,
which allows signal strength to adjust according to need, and interference management
techniques that let femtocells and macrocells (the regular cell towers) sharing the same
spectrum stay out of one another’s way. Other features will include an ability for carriers to offer
closed (femto-) as well as open (pico-) systems, so that these booster boxes can be used for
either private networks or hosted spaces like restaurants, and hand-off technology that will allow
the user to pass from the macro- to the femto- environment or the other way around without
dropping the call.
In the Wall Street Journal recently, Walt Mossberg wrote about his (and his son’s) experience with
femocells. He recommended them for very specific applications: those places where cell signal
is faint to nonexistent, but where data travels over an alternate pathway. On one of my California
jaunts, a couple of industry-analyst friends of mine diagnosed my problem and said, “Femtocell;
that’s the thing for you!” And they were right, whoever pays them.
© 2010 Endpoint Technologies Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.
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