Innovation: Where those ideas really come from

Silicon Valley is full of ideas: Good ones, bad ones, ones that flop and a few that make people billions. At places like Palo Alto Research Center Inc., people come to work every morning just to think up new ideas.

With all this innovation going on, a lot even in tough times like these, you might think all those people in sandals would have thought of everything -- if not every single idea, at least the obvious ones. But you'd be wrong. Unless they're just keeping tight-lipped about it, they're missing out on some big winners. My coworkers and I thought of them, and it's not even our jobs to come up with new ideas -- well, not these kinds of ideas.

I made one up the other day just to save my own skin, conversationally speaking. I call it SportsClue.

I can tell you what CSMA/CD stands for (Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Collision Detection), but when it comes to baseball I don't even know who's playing in the World Series until the third game. Football I can follow while I'm watching it, but so can a cat with good eyesight. I know Tiger Woods plays golf and the Williams sisters play tennis. That's about it. So cocktail parties can be a nightmare.

SportsClue (British edition: SportClue) would be a mobile wireless service. It wouldn't have to wait for a big 3G (third-generation) high-speed mobile data network or low latency for music and video. It would consist of just a brief daily description of what happened in the sports world over the past 24 hours. The Warriors lost again, the Islanders had their fifth straight win, Agassi stayed on top of men's tennis with another Grand Slam victory, and so on.

Just a quick read, no thousand-word screeds by sports section writers who disagree with the local basketball coach. It would be like a cheat sheet that's always up to date and always with you. And no one would know you were reading it because the type's so small on those handheld devices.

A colleague came up with one that would have even broader appeal: Tic-tac-toe via instant messaging. It would be simple and fast-moving and wouldn't take up a lot of screen real estate: a great way to let off steam with a friend while you're at work. And if you got caught goofing off, there wouldn't be any lingering message log containing all the unflattering things you wrote about your boss. Just X's and O's.

Our biggest would-be innovation is really just a way to use some other ones that are already here.

It turns out that when the airlines said you couldn't make cell phone calls in the air, they weren't just trying to make money off those seatback phones. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said in a study released last week that airlines should continue their ban on cell phone calls in flight because there really is a danger of interference with navigation and communication equipment. Those big thinkers must hate that, and always wanting to talk to someone about their new ideas.

The problem is not that there's a little thing in your hand beeping and making noise. In fact, some airlines now specifically allow passengers to use phones for anything that doesn't require sending or receiving signals. That way, the datebooks, games and spy cameras in the latest phones don't have to go to waste while you're traveling. No, the problem is the signals getting sent over mobile phone networks, which happen to interfere with other signals to and from the cockpit in some cases, according to the CAA.

Yet today's well-equipped airliner isn't completely cut off. In addition to those seatback phones, which may as well be air-sickness bags for how often they get used, there are now IEEE 802.11b wireless LANs on some planes. Passengers share the networks through access points on board, which in turn are linked to antennas that exchange data with satellites connected to an IP (Internet Protocol) network on the ground.

You can already make a mobile phone call over a wireless LAN in some offices; mobile phones are in the works now that can communicate over either 802.11b or a traditional cell network. So, why not take that on the plane and keep making calls to your heart's content?

Cisco Systems Inc. is one of the latest companies to come out with a mobile wireless LAN phone. They're talking to cell phone companies now about possibly adding in that piece. The beauty of a phone like that would be that an executive who travels frequently could use the same phone both around the corporate campus and outside, according to Cisco's Charlie Giancarlo, senior vice president and general manager of switching, voice and carrier systems. While the user was in the office, extensions and other standard features would work and cell phone charges wouldn't apply.

What about using on an airliner's wireless LAN?

They hadn't thought about that, Charlie said.

See what I mean? A whole valley full of people thinking, and they need reporters to come up with the killer app.

They're good at some things, though. For example, Charlie's pretty sure they've got the smarts to make it work. The biggest problem would be maintaining the right QoS (quality of service) on that data connection over the satellite link. They've made IP networks sound like a regular phone system, but not over a satellite. The biggest problem is about a quarter-second of latency, or lag time. No reason the technical hurdles couldn't be crossed, though, he said.

So if you need any new ideas, go a little north of the valley to San Francisco and talk to some IT journalists. Just don't call us if the guy sitting behind you on the plane spends the whole flight talking on his combination cell-802.11b phone. It was only a suggestion.

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