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Getting your appliances to talk to one another

Anticipating a wireless cacophony, Selino Lo and others hope to create uniform standards to link a host of consumer electronics.

Selina Lo wants to slap the microwave around and make it play well with others.

Lo, 46, is the chief executive of Ruckus Wireless, a Silicon Valley start-up that is developing technology to connect home appliances wirelessly, including computers, televisions, satellite or cable boxes, even stereos.

It is a prize sought by many entrepreneurs despite the obstacles involved in creating uniform standards to link a host of consumer electronics. The challenges include coordinating telecommunications companies, computer companies and appliance makers; creating a technology consumers can use easily; and developing a sound business model.

If a direct path between two appliances is disrupted, the antenna might avoid the interference by picking a cleaner path (like bouncing the signal off the walls).

And then there's the microwave. It is one of the many everyday items that can cause changes in airwaves and thus disrupt fragile wireless transmissions between, say, the cable box and the television. Other sources of disruption are as simple as human movement or interference from a neighbor's wireless signals.

Enter Lo, a veteran entrepreneur with a whirlwind style (and occasionally salty vocabulary), whose company has developed a multipronged antenna that is the underlying technology in its new wireless router. The antenna monitors the airwaves and changes the path of a wireless stream of data to avoid potential sources of interruption.

"Our software can actually change the antenna orientation in a millisecond," she said. "If the microwave turns on, we find a path that actually faces the other way."

Lo is already enjoying a taste of success. Her company last month began shipping its products to PCCW, a telecommunications provider in Hong Kong that delivers television channels over high-speed Internet lines. Lo said PCCW intended to use the Ruckus technology to send an Internet signal wirelessly from the point where the cable or satellite line enters the home to a computer or television set-top box.

But there is a long way to go before wires are removed from the home entertainment experience, despite vocal assurances from the consumer electronics industry that the wireless home is right around the corner.

Julie Ask, research director at Jupiter Research, said that while momentum is building, the wireless home "is not close." She added: "There isn't somebody taking a lead in integrating the systems in the household."

According to Jupiter's research, for example, only 2 percent of those who use Wi-Fi in their homes apply the technology to send video signals.

Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter, said the few people using wireless technology to, for instance, allow their TVs to stream programming from their computers, were early adopters who did not mind spending quality time with the user manual.

"Dad has to be CIO, mom's running the help desk, and the kids are doing tech support," he said.

Many entrepreneurs and major companies are working to resolve these technological and business issues. Frank Hanzlik, managing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a trade organization in Austin, Texas, representing 240 computer and electronics makers worldwide, said it would take three years before Wi-Fi was a mainstream technology used for a wireless entertainment system.

Industry analysts say it is too soon to tell whether Lo has what it takes to break out of the pack and become a leader. "There are a lot of folks doing stuff," Gartenberg said, referring to the competing ways of unwiring a home. "We're still in the nascent stages of this."

Ruckus raises the stakes
Lo, who has been with Ruckus since May 2003, when it was called Video54, officially introduced Ruckus under its new name last month. One thing it has going for it is $14 million in venture capital financing, including $9 million that was committed last month.

"I thought, what if I want to move my TV? What if I want to move my furniture? Do I have to get the cable guy out again? We are slaves to all the cabling and wiring."
--Selina Lo, CEO, Ruckus Wireless

One of the lead investors, Sequoia Capital in Menlo Park, Calif., invested in Ruckus because it thought the company's new antenna and its underlying software was a major competitive advantage, said Gaurav Garg, a partner at Sequoia.

The antenna looks a bit like a flat star fish with six prongs. It is unusual in that it constantly monitors the airwaves for disruptions, then changes the direction that a signal is being sent. If, for instance, the direct line between an Internet signal and the computer or television is suddenly disrupted, the antenna would find one of 62 other routes. If a direct path between two appliances is disrupted, the antenna might avoid the interference by picking a cleaner path (like bouncing the signal off the walls).

The prongs of the antenna don't actually change direction, and the antenna itself does not move. Instead, software inside the antenna selects the best path and uses the corresponding antenna prong to send the information. In fact, the software and the antenna are embedded in a wireless router that is attached to the point where a television or Internet connection enters the home. The antenna then distributes the signal wirelessly throughout the house.

The creators of the antenna, the engineers Bill Kish and Victor Shtrom, have been developing the technology with help from Sequoia since early 2003.

At the time, Lo was in her second semiretirement. One day, while waiting at home for the satellite technician to hook up a new television, she became frustrated about having to lay more wires throughout her house to connect all her gadgets.

"I thought, what if I want to move my TV? What if I want to move my furniture? Do I have to get the cable guy out again?" she said. "We are slaves to all the cabling and wiring."

Lo quickly learned that there are steep challenges in technology and in business. She was brought into the company to confront both, particularly to find a way to make the technology profitable before all parts of a wireless home are in place.

Her solution is to take baby steps by creating partnerships with telecommunications companies. Similarly, she hopes to appeal to telecommunications giants in the United States like SBC Communications. Her sales pitch is that telecommunications providers, by using her wireless access points, can save money because they will not have to deploy technicians to drill holes and lay wires in consumers' homes.

Lo said the recommended price is $169 for the antenna, and $129 for the adapters that would allow appliances to receive the signals.

A first-generation immigrant who grew up in Hong Kong, Lo came to the United States to study at the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated in 1982 with a degree in computer science.

New York Times

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She spent six years at Hewlett-Packard, working in software development and sales support, before deciding the company was too big for her. She thought the next company she worked for, Network Equipment Technologies in Fremont, Calif., was also too big, even though it had only 2,000 employees. In 1993, she decided to start her own company, co-founding Centillion, a maker of telecommunications equipment that was acquired two years later for $140 million by Bay Networks.

It was a big paycheck, and she promptly went about spending it on clothes, watches, jewelry, shoes and handbags. "I like to make money," Lo said, "and I like to spend it. I don't like the keeping-it part." She added with a laugh that the kinds of things she likes to buy "are very cheap compared to the cars and planes guys like to collect."

After a brief retirement, she was coaxed into taking a management job by the chief executive at Alteon Web Systems, which made technology to send high-speed data signals. She said she benefited to the tune of $20 million when the company was acquired by Nortel Networks in 2000.

Lo has an intense but playful air, a person not easily offended. But she admits she herself can easily offend. She says, and her colleagues agree, that her direct style could be considered grating. "I'm rough and I'm tough, and I sometimes really tick people off," she said.

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