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Ericsson, partners fine-tune inventions at tiny test site

Andrew D. Smith
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

DALLAS - A child uses a television remote to order a movie. The network sends Dad's cell phone a message with the movie's title, rating and price. Dad does further research online through his cell phone, then approves the purchase with the push of a button.

Total time elapsed: 35 seconds.

Pretty nifty, even though the child is actually a middle-aged man, the father is his colleague and their living room is in a Plano, Texas, office building.

LM Ericsson Telephone Co. uses experiments like these at its Plano laboratory to answer such nagging questions as why anyone would want movies delivered through a computer.

The child-and-dad experiment demonstrated not just the ease with which movies can be downloaded, but also how such a system enables parents to monitor kids' viewing.

"You can have users log in to a television like they log in to a computer. That lets parents set different access levels for different kids," said Thomas Nilsson, a close-cropped Swede who runs the prototype-testing lab at Ericsson's sprawling Plano office. "It also lets them log on remotely to see what their kids have watched and what they're currently watching."

The newly opened lab is one of three in the world where Stockholm-based Ericsson and dozens of partner companies fine-tune their gizmos to cooperate seamlessly on mobile phones, computers and other network devices.

The lab occupies two small rooms - one a bright control room bursting with servers and wires, the other a dark display center sparsely decorated with remotes and monitors. But its importance dwarfs its size.

Multi-company coordination once mattered little in Ericsson's go-it-alone culture, until the slow melding of telecommunications, entertainment and consumer electronics forced even the biggest companies to form partnerships and build special facilities for team ventures.

Ericsson chose Plano for one such facility for several reasons - it already had 1,500 employees at its North American headquarters, North Texas sits near the center of the continent, and the area boasts a high concentration of high-tech companies and talent.

Judging by the Swedish, South Asian and Texas accents inside the prototype lab, Ericsson has attracted techies from every corner of the globe, all of them speaking geek.

A recent visit found one staffer fiddling with a laptop computer and a wireless network card. The man described the computer's behavior entirely in numbers and acronyms, such as HSDPA. His colleagues nodded knowingly, while three observers from the outside world exchanged looks of confusion.

The arcane terminology described some very practical technology. The device being demonstrated this day was an Ericsson router designed to turn the type of cellular signal used by AT&T Inc.'s Cingular and T-Mobile USA Inc. into a speedy wireless network.

"Cellular networks have allowed Internet access for a while now, but speed has been poor. This device works several times faster than older equipment, and we have much faster stuff coming out soon," said Ron Smith, a prototyping project manager.

"This is a real step toward full wireless connectivity."

Television broadcasters and cellular carriers both hope better wireless connectivity will get Americans watching television on their phones.

Ericsson and its partners' system, already available for outside use, runs smoothly in the lab, where a smart phone does a passable imitation of a tiny television. Picture resolution lags behind that of the iPod, but a talk show and a cartoon both look good.

Ericsson engineers are particularly proud of the channel changing. It takes only a couple seconds to flip from one picture to the next.

"A bit of pixilation, there," one admitted of a rough transition, "but the system recovers quickly."

Products rarely reach the prototype lab until they're close to launch, so the demonstrations generally go smoothly - until the engineers unveil a multi-media system for managing roving employees.

"And then your guy at the scene can file a live report back to the home office like this," Sam Abbi, an integration engineer, said, punching a button on his computer. "Hmmm. You ought to be seeing a video now. I wonder why ..."

As Abbi's voice trails off, he and his colleagues betray no anger or embarrassment - better to have this happen now, here, to them, than to the CEO at the annual meeting. They huddle around the system like a group of kids with an interesting new puzzle.

"That system will be used to link health care workers in an initiative we will soon announce here in Texas," said Nilsson, who noted that users would never realize the complexity of the underlying system.

"We're here to make this stuff work seamlessly," he said. "If anyone thinks much about the technology, we have failed."

And the cost of failure is high, for many competitors are racing to bring similar technology to market. Even when a system works properly - as with the mobile TV system - Ericsson can still lose out to competitors such as the Qualcomm Inc. subsidiary that landed mobile TV contracts with Verizon Wireless and Cingular.

Still, Ericsson hopes to sell its mobile TV system to other cellular carriers, and it has landed its first customer for the computer-based television, Vodafone Iceland.

"This is a very good deal for us," Nilsson said, "but a very bad one for Icelandic children who like to watch forbidden movies."

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