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BeComm unveils device networking software

A small company called BeComm takes the wraps off technology that aims to give some muscle to linked devices.

A small company called BeComm today took the wraps off technology that aims to give some added muscle to PCs, phones and stereos networked in a home.

BeComm, not to be confused with operating system maker Be Inc., is working on a technology that it hopes will take home networking one step further. The development will allow phones, stereos, handheld computers, TVs, PCs and other devices to link together.

The low-profile firm based in Redmond, Wash.--also home to software giant Microsoft--has been flying under the industry radar for more than four years now. Yet as industry heavyweights start to pay more attention to the possibilities surrounding home networking technology, BeComm may finally get its time in the limelight, analysts said.

BeComm's software "lets you deliver content to wherever somebody wants to consume it," said Van Baker, vice president of consumer platform research for Dataquest. "People both in the computing and consumer electronics industry should all be very interested in this technology."

Chief executive Edward Balassanian, explaining the software, said it works similar to Legos, the popular building block toy with interlocking parts. Pre-built "blocks" of software can be assembled on the fly to basically turn a device on the network into a whole new gadget. The software can do this because it can ask parts of a network, such as a PC, to do work for other linked devices.

In some regards, Strings is similar to the better known Jini technology from Sun, Universal Plug and Play from Microsoft or Havi technology from Philips and Sony. The first thing that a printer or TV set-top needs to be able to do is "see" what other devices are connected to it. But where those technologies focus primarily on letting devices discover each other and allow for a common means of passing data back and forth, BeComm's Strings technology will let devices share processing power, said Balassanian, a former Microsoft engineer.

In a way, BeComm's technology lets home electronics take on characteristics of advanced server networks, where powerful computers hooked up together can break up a request to process information, share the task and then spit results back out.

For instance, BeComm demonstrated at this week's Demo 2000 conference a portable tablet computer playing back streaming audio, even though it didn't have any RealNetworks' playback software. Instead, the tablet "asked" a Windows-based PC it was linked with to process the information, then took the signal and played it through its own speakers. A user could use such a system to play back MP3 digital audio files through a regular stereo.

Another difference from other networking technologies is that for Jini or other similar technologies to work, every device has to have software in it. "Other technologies are predicated on ubiquity. We didn't want to make it so everything had to run Strings to work," said Balassanian.

The technology could allow a remote control connected by Strings to dial the phone under certain circumstances, according to Balassanian. The remote doesn't have to contain a bunch of software--including Strings--telling it how to control the phone. The only requirement is that the phone be hooked in to something with the Strings software, possibly a PC that serves as the hub of the home network.

While Dataquest's Baker noted that the company's technology looks promising, it's not entirely clear yet how the company will generate revenue from it.

Jeff Gill, vice president of business development, said so far the company is generating money from services, which means its engineers are hired to make the technology work in devices for interested companies. The company isn't trying to get money from royalties for each device that ships with the software--so far.

To that end, BeComm announced a relationship with Wind River Systems, one of the largest providers of embedded operating systems, in which Wind River will help sell BeComm's software to companies interested in the information appliance market. One possibility that lies ahead is that BeComm's software will eventually get integrated directly into Wind River's products, and automatically ship on any device. Deals with other embedded software vendors are in the works, Gill said.

Gill thinks that a few years down the road, the company could make money by letting a company like Sony or Panasonic offer software modules for download to customers. These modules would let a consumer have new features and services and a source of recurring revenue for the manufacturer and BeComm.