Nokia is planning to bundle software from Devicescape on devices in its E and N series, that will log in automatically to Wi-Fi hotspots.
"We wanted to make Wi-Fi feel as seamless as the cellular networks," said Dave Fraser, chief executive of Devicescape. The software, which is already available for download on the Devicescape's site can get devices online instantly on Wi-Fi networks, using user-names and passwords stored previously loaded on Devicescape's site.
This is particularly important for handheld devices such as phones - and future consumer electronic goods such as Wi-Fi MP3 players - which may have limited keyboards or browsers, or none at all. These devices are difficult to connect to Wi-Fi networks which were designed for use by laptops.
"Wi-Fi is inexpensive, very fast and has a low latency," said Fraser. "But for devices other than laptops, it's extremely difficult to connect to a home network and can be impossible to connect to public networks."
The software works by sending a request to Devicescape's site, even before the user is logged in, by piggy-backing information on the DNS protocol, which is open on every hotspot. A DNS request transmits a query to the Devicescape site, and a legitimate DNS packet returns the information the handheld needs to log into the Wi-Fi hotspot.
This use of the DNS service is different to DNS tunnelling which some hackers user for DOS attacks - while it is a loophole, it is a good one, which operators welcome, said Fraser: "We have the operator's blessing." It's also secure, as a user can shut a device off all Wi-Fi networks by reporting it stolen on the Devicescape site.
"When you walk into a T-Mobile hotspot, the device itself doesn't know anything about how to get on T-Mobile network - it contacts our service, which sends the user name and password, and the information the device needs to contact the network." To the hotspot, the device looks like a laptop: "We make it happen without any new technology deployed by the Wi-Fi operator," said Fraser.
The software is free to use - Devicescape plans to get revenue from device manufacturers who bundle it, and at 10 percent revenue share from Wi-Fi service providers who get traffic that would otherwise have not reached them. Users who activate it on devices will be given an explanation so they realise their passwords are stored remotely by a third party, said Fraser.
Devicescape has another use - it allows people with Wi-Fi to manage a list of people who will be given access to their network, without showing any of them the WPA key. A token is sent to the users by email (they need to have net access elsewhere to receive this) and then they can be allowed and denied access at will.
The download version of Devicescape is available for Nokia and Windows Mobile devices. A version runs on the iPhone, but will break when the iPhone software is upgraded, thanks to Apple's stance against third party applications.
Before this product, Devicescape made standalone client software that stored passwords on the device, for Palm, Motorola and BlackBerry devices, which proved to be too limited, as they couldn't attach to public networks. "We found that we needed to build a web service," said Fraser.
At present the product is aimed at individuals and small companies: "A corporate version may well be in our future," said Fraser. "There's no momentum on that space right now, but we could do this in partnership with an enterprise IT company."
Nokia's endorsement of efforts to make Wi-Fi easier to use shows the handset vendor's increasing independence from cellular providers, said Richard Webb, wireless analyst at Infonetics Research: "Although it's a massive amount of their business, the world isn't entirely cellular, and cellular networks cost money to use," he said. "Users might look for another handset, or maybe another provider, unless they can get Wi-Fi and soon WiMax working on their handsets."
Devicescape has previously released Linux drivers for Wi-Fi.