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Remote workers under the microscope

A wireless networking group plans to open an observation lab in a Texas mall next year to collect data on telecommuters that could help companies develop new products.

A wireless networking trade group plans to open an observation lab in a Texas mall next year to collect data on remote workers that could help companies develop new products.

The Internet Home Alliance (IHA) said it will open a 2,400-square-foot space by early 2004 in a mall in Plano, Texas, a suburb outside Dallas. Employees from small and large businesses will be welcome to freely use the space, dubbed the "Mobile Worker Pilot," as researchers interview them.

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The IHA plans to unveil the pilot next month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The pilot will include wireless Internet access, computer terminals, flat plasma screens and coffee. Behavioral research will be collected for about four months, but the space will be available for up to 12 months. The IHA and companies such as Herman Miller, Cisco Systems, Panasonic and Hewlett-Packard will sponsor the space, according to IHA Vice President Tim Woods.

"The companies that played a role in this will get a clearer understanding of what should be done in the way of product development decisions," Woods said. He added that the group will also offer the data to other interested companies.

The U.S. mobile work force is expected to grow from 39.2 million employees in 2000 to 55.4 million in 2004, according to research firm IDC.

The IHA brings together companies from a wide variety of sectors--including kitchen appliance makers, software vendors and hardware companies--to conduct tests of wired rooms involving real consumers.

The organization has more than two dozen members, including IBM, Motorola, Sun Microsystems and Whirlpool. Recent IHA members include telecommunications companies SBC Communications and Bell Canada, automation software maker SupportSoft, developers Arvida and Catellus Development, antenna maker Cushcraft and online grocer Peapod. Software giant Microsoft joined the group in July.