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Siemens to resell Wi-Fi locator tech

WLANs can track laptops, PDAs...

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Electronics behemoth Siemens will partner with Finnish firm Ekahau to resell the Nordic developer's crafty Wi-Fi location technology.

Ekahau's trick is to locate a Wi-Fi-enabled PDA, computer, Voice over WLAN (VoWLAN) handset, or tag unit using existing 802.11 WLAN access point antennae. The company claims one metre accuracy when the object to be tracked is within range of three or more base stations.

Computers, handsets, or PDAs to be tracked must be running the Ekahau client service software; the tags are a specialist hardware solution, significantly more complex than an RFID chip. The client software is available as a free download here, but it doesn't seem to do anything interesting on its own.

The Finnish platform will now join the wide portfolio of kit offered by Siemens Enterprise Communications, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Siemens AG.

"We're excited to be working closely with one of the leading WLAN vendors in the world," said Antti Korhonen, Ekahau chief, in a release dated yesterday. "Our combined solution enables our customers to leverage their WLAN investment by delivering state of the art location-based services."

Ekahau's Wi-Fi tracking works by "signal strength calibration, which ensures the highest possible granularity," and is "based on over 10 years of research by one of the leading research groups in the world, the Complex Systems Computation Group at the University of Helsinki".

The company also says its kit is "the only software based real-time location system in the market".

That isn't quite true. E-OTD software on mobile phones was used to work out locations from mast signals years ago, but the technology failed to gain acceptance. Even so, the company which developed E-OTD, Cambridge Positioning Systems, has lately been acquired by CSR for its cellphone-based software sat-nav solutions, which could be marketed this year.

E-OTD wasn't very accurate, and satnav systems whether software or not struggle to get a signal indoors - and both then need to use some kind of comms to let a central server know where they are. So Ekahau's Wi-Fi tracking could well be more suitable for many biz applications, the more so as its makers claim it can be used to track thousands of tags or client machines at once.

Where a business or public-sector operation has a dense Wi-Fi network, reasonably powerful admin machines available, and - for example - only wishes to locate personnel who all have tablets or Wi-Fi gadgets the costs needn't be large. The Ekahau solution genuinely would be entirely software based in such a situation. Of course, admins would need to make sure people didn't go around turning their laptops or gadgets off, or they'd drop off the map at once. Nonetheless, hospitals with a generously-gadgety IT programme, for instance, might find they needed no new hardware at all.

That would be a good thing, because the weak point in the Ekahau offering is the tags for tracking things which don't have their own Wi-Fi. They are nice bits of kit, more like Wi-Fi pagers than regular RF tags; they can send and receive alerts by call buttons, lights and buzzer as well as being tracked.

Unfortunately, however, they cost "from $50", according to the corporate FAQ, so they are only for monitoring valuable stuff. But the worst weakness on the tags' spec sheets is that they only offer WEP WiFi security, not the more secure WPA. Not many tech-savvy WLAN admins will be staying with WEP for long now that it can be broken easily in less than two minutes so Ekahau will need to bustle with the updates.

The other limitation of the kit is that it only works within organised WLANs, which will badly restrict its user base. Ekahau and their new partners at Siemens may be hoping that municipal Wi-Fi will pull out of its present slough, which might let them sell their kit to city admins needing to monitor local government assets, but for now Wi-Fi tracking looks like a niche market. ®

Top three mobile application threats

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