Windows Phone 8 has a secret feature which may activate at any time
Aims to let users surf free WiFi 'spots all unknowing
Updated Microsoft has embedded software from Devicescape into Windows Phone 8, allowing smartmobes to automatically leech off 11 million free Wi-Fi hotspots.
Devicescape's technology is already mandated by Intel in its Ultrabook blueprints, but this Windows Phone tie-up is potentially a much bigger deal as phones already outnumber laptops in terms of Wi-Fi usage. Windows Phone 8 devices will be able to identify nearby hotspots and query a remote server to discover the best way to automatically log on, or record how someone connects manually for the benefit of other users.
The software, which Microsoft is branding Data Sense and operators are wrapping with their own interface, is only interested in free hotspots such as those provided by cafes, railways stations, airports and public bodies. Such hotspots typically require the user to fill in a form and provide some personal details, and it's these steps that Devicescape automates*.
A device with the software installed crafts a special DNS request containing the identity of the hotspot and sends it off a central server; DNS requests are typically forwarded by free Wi-Fi networks without requiring the user to be logged on, so the Devicescape server can respond with instructions specific to that hotspot. The device can then login itself and start downloading, say, Facebook updates without ever leaving the user's pocket.
If the hotspot isn't know then the user will have to go through the manual process, which is recorded by Devicescape and uploaded to the server, but the company is adamant that it will only start providing automatic connections when a good number of people have gone through the process manually, and once the hotspot has proved itself reliable, and fast, enough to be worth using.
Devicescape reckons ten per cent of all hotspots are open for all and sundry, but some of those are people's home Wi-Fi, and others not fast enough, and some never accumulate the requisite number of manual logins, leaving about one in a hundred available to Devicescape users.
That one per cent still adds up to 11 million hotspots, but Devicescape has aspirations to do more than just manage Wi-Fi connections: it wants to make software that works out the best way to connect based on user preferences rather than the simple hierarchy of Wi-Fi then 4G, 3G and finally 2G.
4G networks can already outperform Wi-Fi in some circumstances, so always selecting a wireless network may not be the best decision. Wi-fi will be potentially cheaper - but not at the end of the month if one has not exhausted the phone's mobile data allowance. The decision on which network to use is going to become more complicated, and Devicescape plans on making the software to manage that process.
But that’s for the future: right now it's enough to get devices out there. Ultrabooks and Windows Phone 8 may not be the dominant platforms, but they should proliferate enough to prove if Devicescape works and is useful, provoking the competition to come knocking. ®
Updated to add
* We were misled by Devicescape in the formation of this article: since our briefing with the company, the software biz has been in touch to clarify a few things.
It seemed at first that Microsoft had embraced this level of Wi-Fi login automation, but in fact Redmond isn't going that far just yet. Devicescape is just providing a list of suitable hotspots for the moment although it hopes that's a gateway to the rest of the Wi-FI functionality it wants to offer. Intel Ultrabooks will have the full Devicescape package.
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