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Be appliances go wireless walkabout

Wireless trinkets for world+dog

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Be has put some flesh on its intention to turn its BeIA platform into a credible mobile appliance OS.

The company has struck a deal to support Metricom's upgraded high speed Ricochet network. Metricom has been in the wireless data business for five years, offering wireless data to users in the Bay Area, Seattle and Washington DC. But big investments from Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures, and random billing specialist MCI Worldcom late last year have given it the clout to invest in 128Kbps networks in twenty one US locations. The first of these go live this summer.

This modest little announcement promises to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Naturally, Be gets a partner to make BeIA into a truly mobile platform. It's already struck deals with Proxim and Solopoint, but these are for limited-range home wireless networks, rather than the roaming data that Europeans are already familiar with, albeit in a very limited form, with GSM. And Metricom gets the chance of a bite at a consumer market far bigger than its loyal band of subscribers.

All this is assuming that Be can find OEMs who'll bite, and that Metricom can market the idea of wireless data to world+dog. That's a couple of big Ifs.

Right now Ricochet users are a well heeled and technically savvy lot, who aren't ashamed of strapping an unsightly slab of metal to the back of their notebook PC. And thanks to Transmeta's promise of all-day mobile appliances that run x86-compatible operating systems, and hence x86-compatible applications, Be has hit something of a conundrum.

It's not clear that the cut down BeIA platform will offer that much of an advantage over a mobile implementation of the full x86 BeOS. In fact, you can envisage losing as much as you gain.

On the other hand, if Metricom can deliver on its promise of rolling out high-speed data in the important US metropolitan areas, and Be can deliver on getting BeIA to do the fundamentals - competent browsing, email and security - then both parties have a crack at competing in vertical markets. On paper, freight, medical and the field workers for the big utilities should be able to be kitted out better terms, and for less dosh, than any Wintel or any other appliance combination can promise right now. ®

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