As wireless carriers bring data capabilities to non-PC
devices, such as cell phones and personal digital
assistants, cStar Technologies Inc. is bringing wireless
communications to a different class of devices entirely.
Toronto-based cStar's SkyGate product line is a
wireless gateway designed for non-IT devices, such as
vending machines. The company's founder, Stella Yoon,
said companies that operate vending machines can save
money by sending queries (for example, on which items,
if any, need to be replenished, how much money is in the
machines, whether it's out of change and whether there's
a coin jam) through either carrier or wireless
local-area networks. In some cases, she says, service
technicians can receive alerts on whether machines need
to be serviced right away.
The technology, which is also intended for meter
reading, is designed to send information back to a
corporate database using Unicenter software developed by
Computer Associates International Inc.
Yoon founded cStar about seven years ago after
leaving now-defunct Omega Digital Data Inc., which
designed wireless point of sale terminals.
Yoon says cStar is focussing on the "third wave" of
the Internet. The first wave let users connect their PCs
through landline, while the second wave brought wireless
data to cell phones and PDAs. The third wave, she says,
brings wireless capabilities to the non-IT world.
CN: Can you describe what SkyGate is and how
SY: SkyGate is basically a
communications device which connects any non-IT device
to the IT world. It has already connected over 5.2
million vending machines in the United States. The way
they do it, without using our device, is the truck
driver, who visits vending machines, takes sales
information, what has to be restocked and whether
there's a coin jam or whether there's something wrong.
They have to physically visit and open each vending
machine door and find all that information and write it
down on paper. Then they come back to their truck, and
from there, based on that information they put Coke, or
Pepsi, or whatever on their trolley and go all the way
back to each vending machine and service them. That is a
huge waste of labour and time and there's not enough
accurate information. We originally came up with this
wireless WAN device, so before the truck driver or
managers leave the depot with the products, they can
pull up all that information from each vending machine.
From the depot, they know how much cash is sitting in
that cash box and which item has to be filled in and
also, if there are any machine problems. From there,
they know they don't need to visit certain vending
machines. They will save up to 60 per cent on labour.
That is one example. The other example is meter reading
- electricity, water and gas. Now, the utility companies
don't need to send people to read those meters. They
don't need to estimate bills.
CN: With regard to the vending machine
application, had you looked at any of the applications
in Europe, and did you use any as a model or guide?
SY: What they had been doing (in
Europe) was using wireless mobile commerce. Using cell
phones, they could buy pop. Nokia started doing that in
Finland and they finished a pilot, but unfortunately in
their case, they only focussed on soda machines. Over 50
per cent of vending machines out there are also snack
machines. In our case, we can do any machines. In Japan,
(NTT) DoCoMo and Coca-Cola studied cMode-operated
vending machines. I went through a lot of their data,
and in my opinion, they have to start with brand-new
vending machines. The vending machine has to be
manufactured to fit that type of technology. I believe
we should be able to provide technology that can be
utilized on vending machines right now in the
CN: Right now in Canada, can you pay for any
of the purchases over a cell phone or wireless device?
If so, how?
SY: That will be in the market this
year. That is being worked out right now. There are two
options. Number 1 is, you use a cell phone and the bill
can go via the network operator. You end up paying for
the Coke or Pepsi or any snack you bought on your cell
phone bill, and the other one is, in the event that the
vending operators desperately want (control of) the
billing system, we can work with them.
CN: If you didn't want to bill the customer
on the wireless carrier's bill, how would you go about
SY: That's where we have to work
with the big vending operators. For small operators, it
might be tough to work with the billing system. The best
scenario is, it's best to work with the network
operator. They have the billing system.
CN: What exactly is Internet Wave III?
SY: Internet Wave I is to connect
any PC to the Internet. That is done. Internet Wave II,
I consider connecting any PDA, palmtop (device) or
laptop to the Internet, whether it's GPRS, 3G, or
existing CDPD - it's slowly being done. Internet Wave
III, in my view, is connecting any non-IT devices to the
IT world. One example is vending machines. It will
increase hugely. Let's say you are selling some
important components, and some people don't want human
operation - that's where vending machines kick in. We
have the credit card capability. When the product item
over $10, they should be able to use their credit card
as well. Food manufacturers or magazine publishers want
to be able to operate vending machines directly, so they
can cut off that middleman and (eliminate) a lot of
headaches. In the U.S., a lot of supermarkets have
24-hour operations. I believe vending machines can
replace that. People like me, I do my laundry at 4:00 in
the morning, and sometimes I run out, and that's where
vending machines take care of that.
CN: What other kinds of applications do you
for see for wireless data?
SY: Automatic meter reading and
automatic teller machines are a huge thing. You can put
them anywhere. That is the beauty of wireless. You don't
have to wait for the phone company to come in and dig up
the road. With phone lines, they can monitor meters, but
the problem is, it's physically difficult to bring phone
lines in. With phones, you have to pay monthly payments,
no matter how much you use it, to read that data. With
wireless data, you are charged by the packet. It's not