iPass has always been seen as the road warrior's friend. Over the last few years, remote access technology has changed radically, but has iPass kept up? We spoke to Doug Loewe, vice president of Europe Middle East and Africa for the company.
A few years back, iPass was the client software on the travelling exec's laptop, a gateway to an ISP in every city, in more or less every country. Plug in and dial-up from anywhere, and you get a local call -- along with a per-minute charge to iPass. Now, those travelling workers want to log in at Wi-Fi hotspots, and iPass has included Wi-Fi access.
This change has pulled it into new areas, says Loewe. The most pronounced change has been the increased emphasis on security, which the company has had to square with its traditional emphasis on ease of access.
Aggregating bills, as well as services
Of course, the real benefit of iPass is not aggregating the access for the user, but pulling together the bills for the manager. When iPass makes it "easy" to get onto a Wi-Fi hotspot, without having to use a voucher or enter a credit card, what it is really doing is making it easy for the IT manager to see the costs
"They don't have to use a credit card or voucher," he says. "It is nice that the ultimate end user doesn't have to fiddle with their wallet." But the more exciting benefit is for IT managers who want to make costs visible: "The IT director ends up seeing the bill," says Loewe. "It isn't buried in a million expense accounts. He knows the total overall cost."
A cynic might ask whether the IT manager really wants those costs brought to light, when they're lost in someone else's cost centres, with the paper clips and mileage claims? "The first step in any 12-step programme [eg Alcoholics Anonymous] is admitting that you have a problem," says Loewe. "Most CIOs will say yes to the prospect of getting control."
And if that doesn't work, there is always security as a selling point.
Let us front-end your own network?
iPass has announced that its next release will include a feature to monitor the security status of clients. Endpoint Policy Management (EPM) will check the level of virus protection and patching on each client system before granting it access.
And it won't be just for road warriors. It's an idea that can "flip the concept of the corporate extranet on its head," says Loewe. "Let's assume the whole network is prone to attack." He suggests using EPM as an onramp to the corporate network, not just on the road but in the office - at least on the company Wi-Fi network.
He stops short of prescribing EPM for the wired corporate network (yet), as most IT managers would balk at the idea of paying a monthly fee for access to their own wires. But having the iPass client on non-nomadic PCs, based mostly in the office would certainly extend iPass's market nicely. Or, as Loewe disarmingly puts it: "We want to make it easy for the user to fire it up. We don't want iPass to be the solution for the privileged few."
It's a pitch that needs tuning, of course: "We need to price this so that it is not only the high end user that has the client," says Loewe. EPM will go on clients as cheap software for a one-off fee. Like the iPass client itself, the fees don't come into force until the software activated -- automatically, when the client device connects from a different place. However, EPM has a per-month per-user flat charge. "The meter isn't running," says Loewe. "Having a meter running for remediation would not be tolerated by users, as it is for access"
If a user activates EPM only, and doesn't use a public Internet service through the iPass client (taking a laptop to the office cafeteria, for instance, the flat fee kicks in: "For remediation only, the fee will be a couple of dollars, per user per month," says Loewe.
But there's a bigger pricing question that iPass ought to be able to weigh in on.
One of the most noticeable things about public Wi-Fi at the moment is how variable the pricing is, with the British paying more than the Americans. iPass normally operates on a different model, with per-minute charging instead of the hourly or daily rates charged by most hotspot networks. But could it bring some sense to the market?
"We are the largest holistic aggregator, with half a million end users," says Loewe. "We can help the service provider to calibrate the costs and adjust their pricing model," Mostly it is market forces that drive down the cost, says Loewe, rather than conscious directions from iPass - the company's contribution is more realistically just the fact of getting more people online.
"We deliver more minutes and more usage per user," he says. "We legitimise the market because we are out there with a large international user base."
iPass's connection charges are almost always per-minute, but the company made one exception: "At the T-Mobile hotspots in Starbucks we have a flat rate," says Loewe. In fact, he points out the iPass rate at Starbucks may be a better deal, since the price for a day's surfing is the same, but the user can go do it in more than one café without additional fees.
At other hotspots, it's per-minute charging, - ten to twelve cents in Loewe's native currency. "Our pricing works out cheapest for 98 percent of the customer base," he says. At ten cents a minute, most people get what they want done before they have racked up the cost of a day's surfing. "Power users get amortised over the others," he says.
But what about bringing new technologies on? When will 3G be a part of the iPass offering, for instance? "We almost don't care bout 3G," says Loewe. "We are technology agnostic."
"We are not biased to technologies," he expands. "We are biased to making them secure, simple and ubiquitous. If the winning horse is 3G, or Wi-Fi or WiMax, then users are not stranded. We've covered the bet. The IT director can breathe a sigh of relief, because he is not betting the farm on Wi-Fi."
For the user, this is good: "The client behaves the same, whether it is GSM, GPRS, 56k dial-up or Wi-Fi," says Loewe. "The user doesn't have to understand the handshakes."
However, It managers want a bit more. They are paying iPass to give them the best access available, so they want the company does keep close tabs on what is coming up. They don't want a new technology to blindside iPass.
So far, iPass has made the right decisions, prioritising Wi-Fi over 3G. In fact its emphasis on Wi-Fi is such that the company has yet to deliver a GPRS module for its software. There are several facets to the reason why not, says Loewe. For one thing, iPass is not so interested in the technology, seeing Wi-Fi as more useful to the kind of customers it supports. "It is our role to make technologies work, but we can't make GPRS better than it is," he says.
Perhaps more importantly, there is the billing. GPRS data is already billed per minute to the end user, and iPass has not yet managed to create a worthwhile deal which transfers those costs to the IT manager and is still worthwhile. "We are working on a GPRS blade," said Loewe, "But so far have no contracts with providers."
This module is more of a long-term play, as the same module will also work for 3G when (if?) it comes into its own. So far iPass doesn't see any great rush towards it, or unmet demand for 3G in its customers, even as the vendors line up services, including a data-oriented service from Vodafone which would be right up iPass's street. "We haven't had to break the glass and ring the alarm bells on 3G," he says. "We prioritised towards Wi-Fi."
WiMax is already on iPass's radar: "That's the next priority below 3G" says Loewe, though if 3G languishes, it could easily move upwards.