Cisco, Qualcomm join to make better use of Wi-Fi in stores and venues

Users of some phones will get to see free information and download apps by tapping a flashing icon

Cisco Systems and Qualcomm are putting their considerable wireless weight behind a system to make it easier for retail stores and other venues to offer information to visitors over Wi-Fi.

Many shops, airports and other locations have Wi-Fi networks that can help their customers get on the Internet, but they aren't getting as many people as possible onto Wi-Fi or getting all the value they could out of the networks, according to Cisco. For example, the company envisions brick-and-mortar stores offering the kinds of personalized deals and recommendations that help to power the shopping experience at online stores such as Amazon.com.

On Thursday, Cisco is announcing a variety of new capabilities to make such Wi-Fi networks both more accessible and more interesting to both consumers and venue owners. The new offerings come with the latest version of Cisco's Mobility Services Engine (MSE) software, with additions from the recent acquisition of ThinkSmart Technologies, and with the partnership with mobile chip giant Qualcomm.

The deal with Qualcomm could produce the component of Thursday's news that most consumers will notice. The companies want to make it possible for Wi-Fi network owners to deliver locally relevant information to consumers' smartphones even before they log on to a nearby network. Included in that information would be options such as joining the wireless LAN or downloading the store's app, but the basic information would pop up without the user having to do anything.

Firmware in Snapdragon S4

Cisco has included firmware in Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 chipset, which is destined for smartphones already due to come out over the next few months, that will make the chipset talk to Cisco wireless LANs equipped with the new MSE software.

"The chip has this local service discovery, which gets ignited in the presence of a Cisco network," said Sujai Hajela, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Wireless Networking Business Unit. It delivers an alert in the form of a blinking arrow on the top of the phone's home screen, which appears whether the user has joined the Wi-Fi network or not.

"The local service discovery is basically detecting a Wi-Fi radio, and it is just giving you an invitation. It's up to you whether you want to do anything with it or not," Hajela said. Users will also be able to turn off the local service discovery feature on their phones.

The Fernbank Museum of Natural History, in Atlanta, plans to adopt this feature next year. The blinking icon on visitors' phones there will offer a list of information such as locations of restrooms and other features in the museum, a listing of showtimes at its affiliated Imax theater, and a link to download the free, interactive visitor-guide app.

Fernbank's mobile app will guide visitors through the museum and give them extra content and activities to do while they move through the exhibits, with new features coming up based on the visitor's current location. The museum hopes it will make the experience more educational.

"You remember a lot more of what you do, versus what you just see or read," spokeswoman Brandi Berry said.

In a retail shop, a shopper who has downloaded the store's app could be presented with recommendations and offers that are relevant to both their own past purchases and where they are in the store at the moment, Cisco's Hajela said. Customers that don't have a phone with the correct Snapdragon chip could download the app before they went to the store or do it through their phone browser while they are there.

Wireless analytics

Even without presenting consumers with information or an app, Cisco's new MSE can now deliver more value through location analytics. Copenhagen Airport is using the software to monitor foot traffic in various parts of its facility to better plan for staff deployments and other actions, Cisco said. Through the airport's Wi-Fi network, the software can measure movements by tracking devices that have Wi-Fi turned on, regardless whether they are logged on to the network, Hajela said.

Through the Hotspot 2.0 standard, Cisco and carriers can also help make it easier for users to move onto Wi-Fi networks without having to go through a complicated login process through a browser. At Fernbank, for example, the museum's network is managed by AT&T and customers of that carrier can automatically move from the cellular data system onto the Wi-Fi network, according to Berry.

With this rollout, Cisco is looking far forward in the kinds of capabilities Wi-Fi can deliver, said analyst Peter Jarich of Current Analysis. Stores and venue operators that just want to deploy Wi-Fi may not buy into the complex enhancements on offer, he said.

"This is a big jump," Jarich said. "It's going to get these people out of their comfort zone."

It remains to be seen how consumers will respond to the local service discovery feature on phones, Jarich said. However, Cisco and Qualcomm are the best-positioned players in the industry to popularize such a feature, and it might catch on without anyone else's help, he said. Cisco holds a majority share of the Wi-Fi access point business and Qualcomm in the smartphone chip segment, he said. Cisco says it is working to get the protocol it uses adopted as an industry standard, and is talking with other vendors about using the technology.

Gartner analyst Paul DeBeasi thinks Cisco and Qualcomm will need additional partners to gain critical mass. "They need to basically engage with the handset providers to get that into every phone," he said.

The MSE software version with the new features, MSE 7.4, is set to ship in December or January. MSE is available as both a dedicated or a virtual appliance. The key piece of MSE that supports the new features, called the Advanced Location Service License, is priced starting at US$195 for a license for one Wi-Fi access point.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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