I first heard of Personal Mobile Gateway (PMG) during the Bluetooth Americas 2003. IXI presented the concept and some of the companies joining the initiative. Since then the company promissed to deliver its first PMG enabled devices from March 2004. We now have the chance to try the first PMG implementation, the neoFone, and the companion devices.
What exactly does a PMG device do? With PMG devices users can start small, and add functionality as needed. The concept combines WAN (GSM/GPRS) and PAN (Bluetooth) functionalities in a small device that runs a special software to act as a mini-router and mini-server for a personal network of sleek devices. These sleek devices are specialised, and can be added when needed - and can be left behind at home when not needed. Another advantage is the independence: users can move from one technology provider to another, and keep using the devices, since all follow the same standard.
Examples of sleek devices are cameras, digital pens, and other communications devices. And because PMG uses Bluetooth as the communication layer, other Bluetooth devices can also connect to the Mobile Gateway and use some of the services available. For example users can add headsets, PDA and computers to the network. We'll see more of this later in this article.
Why not rely on Bluetooth alone for this? Bluetooth devices can only run some pre-defined appplications, limited by the profiles implemented by the manufacturer. PMG implements a new application level, using the LAN routing capabilities made available by the Bluetooth infrastrucure.
IXI is the company driving the development of the PMG concept. IXI-Connect is the core software that runs on the PMG. It provides a bridge between the Personal Area Network (PAN) and the mobile network (WAN). The PMG sleek devices run the IXI-Sleek, the client software. Companies like Casio and Samsung are planning or have already announced some PMG devices.
InStat/MDR has published the report Bluetooth 2004: Poised for the Mainstream, where it says that a number of wireless operators see PMGs as an opportunity to increase their Average Revenue Per Unit (ARPU) and to offer service differentiation. However, the successful emergence of PMGs will depend on the willingness of operators to embrace this new breed of device.
A good example is the www.myneo.com website. After buying a PMG device you can register with MyNeo. Create an account, enter your mobile phone number and youíll be connected. The site will communicate with your mobile to search for devices in your PAN. These devices are listed on the site, and include any PMG or Bluetooth device, as you can see below. For PMG devices itíll list the features and access to the manuals. You can also configure some of your devices from here. If you're curious to know, MyNeo seems to use a SMS push notification to initiate a routine on neoPhone that reports back to the server with some of its configuration.
MyNeo is also used to store pictures taken with neoSnap, a PMG digital camera weíll write more later.
Some of the devices connected to neoPhone, listed on the website
MyNeo is just an example of what IXI is showing to mobile operators. Using this kind of access to the user's PAN, operators can distribute updates, push notifications or communicate directly with PMG sleek devices, through the PMG phone, thus having another opportunity to increase revenue.
Now that you have a background on the concept, I'll share my first hand experience with a PMG device, a couple of sleek devices and other Bluetooth devices.
IXI developed a mobile brand, the Neo. Initially it offers three products. The neoFone (NF-10) is a GSM/GPRS (900/1800/1900MHz) mobile phone, very light (65g), with a 65k colour LCD (128x128 pixels), SMS, MMS, polyphonic ringtones, music composer, voice memo, logos, games, calendar, phone book and more.
The phone comes with 4MB RAM and promises 3 hours talk time and 150~200 hours standby. It can be compared with other feature phones currently in the market in terms of feature. It's quite comfortable to use, and it worked very well on my GSM network provider, Vodafone New Zealand. The menu presentation is similar to what we see in some Sony Ericsson (T610/T630) models.
As a feature phone it performs well, but compared with current models available from some networks I'd suggest increasing the screen resolution and adding a MMC/SD card reader to allow for extra multimedia files. Adding a multimedia player (3GPP) could be a good move if the idea is to increase revenue for operators, although this functionality can be added on a multimedia player sleek device. I would also expect MyNeo to be able to synchronise the Address Book, pretty much like Fonetango does. This would be good for backup purposes and to facilitate data entry.
PMG and Bluetooth share the same menu, and when you click Add New Device it will do a Bluetooth search. I was able to pair and use my Bluetooth headset and using the phone as the GPRS access for my laptop and Pocket PC was easy.
What was really nice is that I could use the phone as a Bluetooth router. When a handheld or computer uses the dial-up profile of any mobile phone to connect to the GPRS network, these standard Bluetooth phones will only allow one device connected at a time. With a PMG device it works in a different way. While you can still connect to GPRS using the dial-up profile, you can also connect to the PMG using the LAN Access profile. In this case you are connected to the PMG built-in mini-router, and other devices can connect to it at the same time. This gives your device access to a WAN (the GPRS), while having access to the other devices in the LAN created through the mini-router.
Bluetooth services available on PMG neoFone
Pocket PC connected to PMG phone LAN
The first sleek device available is the neoChat, made by Smart Modular Technologies. This is a dedicated messaging device in a clamshell form factor, quite light (106g), and looking very much like a device coming out of Star Trek. It sports a QWERTY backlit keyboard, and a 240x160 greyscale LCD. The neoChat has two buttons on the right side that can be used to scroll messages up and down. Below the keyboard four buttons give access to the main functions: IM, messaging, IM status and settings. A key on the right side provide context sensitive menu.
The neoChat comes with built-in IM clients (AOL, ICQ, MSN Messenger and Yahoo!), although you can only have one IM identity active at any time. A neat feature is that your status is set as "Away" when the device is closed. You're notified of new messages with a sound and a blinking external LED.
The e-mail client works well, but the device supports only one account and does not support attachments. I couldn't find a option to download only the headers, which can be quite useful in these days of spam and large e-mails, but it downloads only a part of the e-mail anyway, and you have the option to download more if you want. As a plus you can specify an interval to check for e-mails, so you don't have to manually initiate the client every minutes.
The SMS client is very nice. As soon as a new message arrives on the neoFone, it's automatically transferred to the neoChat. If you delete the message on the neoChat, it's also deleted on the handset. Very nice synchronisation here, making the device very handy for SMS conversations.
An interesting feature is the unified Unread inbox. All unread messages, regardless of being IM, e-mail or SMS, are available on a single screen. As soon as the message is read, it's moved to the appropriate Inbox.
Overall I like the neoChat. I'd suggest a colour screen, and better backlight. The IM, SMS and e-mail clients are very well done and easy to use. When transitioning between functions thereís a short animation, very cool touch.
The next sleek device available is the neoSnap, a very light (51g) and easy to use digital camera. This device is made by Infohand, and itís basically the same camera attachment distributed by Sprint, with the added benefit of Bluetooth. Thereís no usable services available to other Bluetooth enabled devices, meaning that the neoSnap will work only with the PMG phone. The camera has no frills, itís a point-and-shoot type of camera. Thereís an on/off button, the shutter button, a simple LCD display with the battery life and number of images the camera is able to store.
Using the camera is very simple. After pairing it with your PMG phone simply snap the pictures. If the PMG phone is in range the camera will automatically use the GPRS connection to upload the image to the MyNeo website. The camera can hold up to 30 images (VGA 640x480 pixels). Youíll notice that the LCD will show the number of images available (letís say 28) and a few minutes later itís back to 30. Every time the LCD shows 30 it means the images were transferred to MyNeo under your account. From your MyNeo account you can edit the image (rotate), download or forward the images via e-mail.
You can see samples of pictures taken with the neoSnap here and another one here.
The neoSnap does not have a LCD to display the pictures, and it would be great to have a preview mode on the PMG phone before transferring the files. Also the images are directly transferred to your MyNeo account, and you canít use then on a MMS from your neoPhone.
On the other hand, the combination of camera and PMG is perfect for moblogging. Iíd suggest an enhancement on MyNeo to allow albums to be public, with ownerís comments entered from the phone.
Main view of MyNeo website account
Working with an image
The PMG concept can be extended to a big range of other devices. Digital pens that transfer your notes to a central server for later review, watches that announce incoming calls so you can answer them with your Bluetooth headset without having to look for your phone to see who is calling. Possibilities are endless, and it can attract users that are not interested in sophisticated feature phones but would like to be able to add functionality as needed. Or users that want a feature phone but for security reasons sometimes have to leave the camera behind without missing the phone functionality.
One of the great benefits of PMG is hiding the complexity of some operations related to Bluetooth. The devices "know" each other and are centrally managed, yet users can easily add other non-PMG Bluetooth devices to the PAN. The neo line of products brings some innovative ideas and concepts, and with some minor updates it is probably ready to hit the market.