May 17, 2007
No WiFi? WiPeer software says ‘no problem’
In an age of supposedly instant communications, he felt impatient that in locations without access to the Internet or a cellular network, there was no way to communicate or share files with fellow researchers, even though they all carried laptops and were often in the same hall or building.
The answer, he realized, was to develop a new solution.
One and a half years later, a team of doctoral students under Friedman's guidance has developed WiPeer. The new software enables mobile and desktop computers to communicate directly with one another in a local area without any mediating factor, such as an Internet server. The software, which is available free on the Net, enables users to send messages, pictures, files, movies and games to one another wirelessly within a 100- to 300-meter radius.
Direct communication via computers has been technically possible for years. Any laptop or desktop computer with wireless connection capabilities should be able to communicate directly with another. The only problem is that this form of wireless ad-hoc communication is highly complex and requires a long configuration process. Even professionals in the field have shied away from tackling this problem.
"We always knew the possibility existed but it was just too complicated," Friedman said. "When we wanted to share files, pictures or games it was much easier to just use a USB or disk on key."
Work on WiPeer began in January 2006. It was undertaken as a doctoral dissertation by three of Friedman's graduate students, Vadim Drabkin, Gabi Kliyot and Alon Kama. Their goal was to devise a solution that would not only solve their own communication problems, but which could also be put to use by the general public. As a result, the team focused on building software that looks attractive and professional.
"Typically when you build software in academia it is very rough and not always easy to use," Friedman said. "Right from the start we made sure that WiPeer would have an attractive GUI [graphic user interface], could be easily installed and was simple and appealing to use."
The user-friendly application platform enables simple communication between computers in close proximity -- 100 yards inside a building and up to 300 yards in the open air. Users can transfer dozens of pictures from one computer to another in less than a minute, and even a 700 megabyte file can be transferred in up to 15 minutes. It is also possible to carry on chats without disturbing anyone in the vicinity or to play collaborative games like chess.
WiPeer is only available for systems that run Windows XP or Vista.
"It's very fast and extremely simple," said Friedman, adding that in addition to students and researchers, the software will also appeal to businesspeople, particularly those that travel frequently for their work.
"Employees who go abroad on company business may be seated separately from one another in the airplane," Friedman said. "With this software, they can work together on their presentation during their flight."
The software was completed earlier this year. Since it was published, several thousand people have downloaded it, and it has attracted a great deal of attention on Web sites and blogs throughout the world. Friedman admitted that there is no way of knowing who has downloaded the software or how much it is being used, because the software can also be passed from person to person.
"The feedback has been very good," Friedman said. "We have had some bugs, but these have been sorted out."
The next stage of development, according to Friedman, is to develop the software for the cellular phone, bypassing the cellular operator and offering free calls to anyone within close proximity, such as a shopping mall, school or sports stadium.
Friedman estimates that this software will become available within a year or so and will be suitable for advanced cellphones equipped with WiFi. Currently these phones are not common, but market research companies predict that within the next few years, over half of all cellphones sold will be WiFi enabled.
Such a development is likely to cause a stir of alarm among cellular operators, but Friedman is confident that this unease will be short-lived.
"This development will not make cellular operators obsolete," he said. "There are several developments threatening to disturb their current business models. They will adjust them and come up with a situation where everyone is happy."
The research students are also looking to develop multiple-hop routing, which will enable users to communicate via other computers and cellphones in the transmission range and use them as forwarders or routers to other mobile devices over a longer distance. In the meantime, they're also continuing to improve and increase the layers of security protecting documents and files being shared.
Friedman is now considering ways to possibly commercialize this project, but in the meantime, he and his students plan to continue with their research over the next year or two.
"We want to bring this to as many people as possible," he said. "When there are two computers in the same room, it doesn't make sense that they must go out to the Internet to communicate. Keeping things local -- this is our main added value."