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Another Perspective


Start with two clever, aggressive, pudgy businessmen named Louis.  Add an adventurous damsel in undress known as the most beautiful woman in the world.  Stir in an avant-garde composer, a bunch of player pianos, a munitions maker serving the Nazis, and some torpedoes.  It could be a lesson from Hogwart's:  The Curse of Lamarr.  But it is, in fact, the story of wireless networks, and the cast includes Starbucks, Deutsche Telekom, and IBM.

In 1937, four years after her appearance in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy, which apparently had a very low budget for costumes, the woman who would adopt the name Hedy Lamarr was in London.  She had escaped from one of the Austrian mansions owned by her Hitlerite hubby, armaments manufacturer Fritz Mandl.  Her next stop was Paris, where Hedwig Eva Maria Mandl, nee Keisler, obtained a divorce from the fabulously wealthy and understandably jealous munitions magnate.  According to various accounts, the gorgeous lamster had to drug a maid and otherwise elude Herr Mandl's hired handlers to make her escape.  Hedy Keisler-Mandl was working as an actress, to mixed reviews.

At the time, Louis B.  Mayer, the boss of MGM, was in London.  He seems to have met Hedy there, or possibly he ran into her while returning to New York by ship.  Whatever the true story, by chance or because they planned it that way, the two were on the same boat.  The upshot was that Hedy got some career advice, a new name, and the idea that her next step would be made in Hollywood.  What she did not get was a job offer from Mayer, at least not right away.

Hedy Lamarr
Hedy Lamarr
As brilliant as she was beautiful

Mayer didn't want to be directly associated with the actress and her scandalous past.  But Hedy Lamarr managed to get a role in the 1938 film Algiers.  Her past did not figure in the press coverage of the film, and in about a year Mayer felt Hedy Lamarr was sufficiently distanced from her early career in Europe to join the MGM roster of film stars.  MGM publicists billed Lamarr as "the most beautiful woman in the world," and they probably did not get too many arguments.  Around the same time as she began gaining recognition, Lamarr married film writer Gene Markey, the second of her six husbands. 

Marriage didn't keep Lamarr from going to parties, and at one, in 1940, she met American composer George Antheil.  They quickly became friends.

Anthiel wrote a piece called Ballet Mechanique.  It included a dozen player pianos that had to be coordinated.  Antheil and Lamarr talked about this problem.  Lamarr recalled discussions she thought were similar, talks held by her Austrian former husband and his military pals.  Those talks were not about player pianos, but rather about the difficulty of controlling torpedoes.  To her, the problem was the same.

Together, Lamarr and Antheil formalized a scheme for coordinating groups of machines and, in 1942, obtained a patent.  The principles in that patent later formed the basis of coordinating message transmission by a method that is now called spread spectrum technology.  Basically, the concepts on which cellular phone networks and IEEE 802.11 wireless LANs are based flow from the patent initially filed by Antheil and Lamarr, who used her married name, Markey, on the legal documents.

Lamarr and Antheil never made a penny from the patent, nor did they want to.  They just hoped that their idea would help the USA defeat the forces and ideas from which Lamarr had fled.

Louis B Mayer
Louis B Mayer
Won some, lost some

At the time, Louis B.  Mayer probably knew nothing about Hedy Lamarr's patent, but he knew enough about movies to make quite a few and enough about disputes to get into too many.  In 1951, he was tossed out as the head of MGM; six years later he was dead of leukemia.

Lamarr's movie career lasted beyond Mayer's, but not at MGM.  She changed studios a number of times, reaching what some critics say was her most memorable appearance, in Cecil B.  DeMille's Samson and Delilah, released in 1949.  Whether she showed as much talent as beauty is debatable, but one thing about the movie is incontrovertible: Lamarr's co-star Victor Mature brought down the house.

By the time she died at the age of 86 (or possibly 88, based on some documents showing her to be two years older than she usually admitted), in January 2000, Hedy Lamarr realized that her patent had more of an impact on the world than her movies.  Yet her image was still worth plenty.  When Corel used Hedy's picture without permission to promote its CorelDraw 8 software, in 1998, Lamarr took the company to court and walked out with a settlement estimated at $200,000.

Who knows how much she would have collected had she somehow owned derivatives of her patent, and had decided to exploit those rights with America's presumed need for the technology to win World War II some sixty years in the past?  As for George Antheil, he left an interesting musical heritage and at least one child, Chris Beaumont, whose Web site is a tribute to pop and pal's ideas.

The generosity of Lamarr and Antheil with what proved to be a very powerful patent seems to have been only the first in a number of events that suggest the forces of fate stand between spread spectrum radio networks and successful exploitation of the medium.

For one example, you need look no farther than IBM, and for another you merely have to go to your local Starbucks.

Several years ago, IBM decided to put the AS/400 at the heart of what appeared to be the one of the first commercially viable implementations of a 2.4 GHz, 802.11 wireless LAN.  (Big Blue even wrote all about it.) Unlike today's popular 802.11b networks, which are designed to run at 11 megabits per second (Mbps), the 802.11 network installations of the mid-1990s ran at 1 or 2 Mbps.

Louis V Gerstner
Louis V Gerstner
Lost carrier

This initiative was one of the forward-looking moves that IBM made under former boss Louis V.  Gerstner.  But, perhaps like Louis B.  Mayer, Gerstner sometimes started battles he could not win, and the fight against 802.11 skeptics was one of the ones he lost.  In 1999, just as new hardware technology was making 802.11b faster, cheaper, and generally more attractive, IBM, baffled by a flood of new developments and frustrated by its results in the AS/400 market, tucked its antennae between its legs and ran.  In a wireless world, I suppose that they couldn't very well pull the plug.  In any event, today's IBM wireless offerings are geared for use with Windows systems and, in some cases, Linux.  On its main wireless technology Web page, IBM makes it clear that wireless technology for proprietary systems is no longer part of the plan.

In wireless, IBM now seems to be tied to Intersil chip technology, which, along with circuits from Lucent Technologies and Texas Instruments, constitute the basis of just about every 802.11 type device on the market.

Microsoft is hedging its bets here.  In Windows XP, Microsoft provides native support for the Lucent chips, used in ORiNOCO wireless base stations and remote device transceivers.  But it is also remarketing LinkSys hardware, which uses Intersil chips, as Microsoft brand apparatus.

Both big players could be upstaged by the more recent Texas Instruments chips, which, when talking to their kin, run at 22 Mbps (using tricks borrowed from the emerging 802.11g standard) but also interact very well with 802.11b devices from any vendor that means the inter-vendor Wi-Fi criteria.  And it will all get even more complicated, as Toshiba, now a buyer of others' circuits, plans to offer 802.11 chips of its own.

Warchalking symbols
Symbolic logic

The 802.11g devices, which are expected to hit the market in 2003, will boost wireless speeds to 55 Mbps, the same rate as provided by 5 GHz 802.11a equipment, but with better transmission characteristics, because they run in a band that is an octave lower, the same 2.4 GHz range used by 802.11b, by Bluetooth gadgets, by some cordless phones, and by all microwave ovens.  (Think about that next time you try on a Bluetooth headset.)

IBM could use the forthcoming technology as a springboard to re-enter the wireless segment with hardware and software for all its platforms, but maybe somebody in Armonk thinks outfits that try to lock up and exploit the airwaves using spread spectrum technology have bad luck.  This would be The Curse of Lamarr.

At Starbucks, every shop in the United States, and a growing number of shops overseas, offers Internet access to customers who come in bearing 802.11b equipment.  The deal began with a scheme involving Compaq as prime contractor for in-store equipment.  Compaq is, of course, no more, so Hewlett-Packard gets to carry this can.  The wireless network services at Starbucks initially came from MobileStar.  MobileStar went away, and its remains were ultimately absorbed by T-Mobile, the worldwide wireless brand of Deutsche Telekom.

Starbucks customers can get unlimited access to the Internet from Starbucks coffee shops for $50 a month, and there are also limited access and pay-as-you-go options.  These choices compete in a market that may be getting a bit tough, however.  Lots of places offer free wireless Internet access, and there is even some kind of social movement among Web geeks who want to bring free wireless access to every interested party.  In New York, for instance, NYCwireless provides free access in a park adjacent to the main branch of the New York Public Library and lots of other places, too.  Similar groups exist on the West coast, even around Starbucks Galactic Headquarters, in Seattle.  This may make it hard for Starbucks, HP, and T-Mobile to build a viable business on the backs of coffee sippers.

Adding to the list of alternatives are hundreds of wireless access points that allow anyone to use the Internet as a result of accident, rather than design.  Many wireless networks are set up with absolutely no security, so anyone within radio distance (usually 100 yards with common equipment, but sometimes much farther) can hop on and surf.  Increasingly, buildings with open wireless access points have been marked.  The marking is done by people who discover the points and use chalk to indicate their finds.  This is called warchalking.  The term is a variation on wardriving, which is slang for zooming around in a car while carrying a notebook computer equipped for 802.11 action, and mooching bandwidth.  The word wardriving is drawn from the word wardialing, an old hacker's term for dialing random phone numbers and trying to get into systems via any modems that happen to answer a call.  Wardriving is connected to stumbling, which is just mapping out access opportunities, not necessarily using the connections.  Stumbling can be done with just about any 802.11 apparatus and a bit of software, but the serious stumblers have GPS gizmos hooked to their computers and end up with tables of open access points listed by latitude and longitude.

Prospective warchalkers can find a ton of sites dealing with the topic via any search engine.  Anyone interested in stumbling ought to start at NetStumbler, one source of stumbling software and a place to find additional information on the topic.

Don't be afraid.  The spirits of Lamarr and Antheil will protect you.

— Hesh Wiener September 2002

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