During a recent hiatus from the ranks of high tech executives, Marco Boerries embarked on an effort to solve what he regards as one of the most daunting problems facing the high-tech world.
Boerries stepped down in January from his role of vice president at Sun Microsystems Inc., where he had been in charge of the desktop software suite StarOffice. He created the product some 17 years ago and sold it to Sun in 1999. Finding time on his hands, the 33-year-old technophile decided to outfit his home with the latest Internet technology.
"I completely transformed my house into a digital home," Boerries said, describing his residence in the hills just outside of San Francisco.
He literally bought into the pitch from industry leaders offering to connect his refrigerator or washing machine to a network. He purchased a host of these "smart" products which also included television set-top boxes, a home network, handheld computers, Web pads, cell phones, digital cameras and an in-car computer for his Porsche. He wired every room in his home for streaming audio and video and replaced his old phone line with a voice-over-IP network.
Any consumer who has tried to install a broadband connection or connect multiple PCs to a home network may understand why Boerries began to lament his digital lifestyle. The breadth of protocols and standards employed by the various devices has made his new home unmanageable, he said. Not only that but he must keep pace with software upgrades and security patches, and transfer personal information from one device to another each time he buys a new gadget.
It was these problems that led to the launch of his new software company, VerdiSoft Corp., which launched officially Tuesday at the CeBIT tradeshow in Hanover, Germany.
"Suddenly, I had become the system administrator for 50 to 60 devices," Boerries said. "The pains I went through to do all this was the inspiration for VerdiSoft."
At its offices in Palo Alto, California, and Hamburg, Germany, the company has developed a software system intended to make life easier for consumers as they try to manage their expanding universe of digital products. Using client and server software provided to hardware makers and service providers, the system can perform a variety of tasks including transferring a user's personal information between devices, helping to configure a home network, or delivering software upgrades to equipment such as ATM machines and sales terminals.
At its core is the CrossPoint Server, used by service providers or device makers to keep track of the unique features of a device, such as its hardware, software and user preferences. The server software includes a software management module for controlling the installation of device drivers, operating system files and applications; a data delivery module for delivering personalized data, and a preference and configuration module, which records configuration settings for one or more devices.
In one possible scenario, a cellular service provider who installed the VerdiSoft CrossPoint Server in its network would be able to store a customer's phone preferences, so that when the user buys a new phone, the preferred settings could be automatically delivered.
A provider of a DSL (digital subscriber line) service, on the other hand, could use the CrossPoint server to remotely configure DSL routers used by its subscribers. If the user wanted to install a firewall and virus protection software with the router, the service provider could download the necessary software, saving the user from having to deal with the hassle, according to VerdiSoft.
The need for an infrastructure to manage the growing number of connected devices is clearly there, said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc, who has seen early demonstrations of VerdiSoft's technology.
"Right now if you really want to automate your house you need to learn a lot about technology," he said. "Pretty much every device you install has to be configured manually.
"You end up becoming your own technical support organization," he added.
Along with its server software, VerdiSoft plans to offer a software development kit (SDK) that hardware makers can use to add a set of specifications to various devices so they can send and receive information over VerdiSoft's software.
The company is pitching the technology to manufacturers of products as diverse as those Boerries installed in his home, and it can support devices based on J2ME (Java2 Micro Edition), as well as operating systems from Palm Inc., Microsoft, Wind River Systems Inc. and Symbian Ltd., and various Linux embedded operating systems. A separate SDK will be offered to companies that build home-grown operating systems, the company said.
VerdiSoft will need to win the support of device makers and service providers for its product. Manufacturers could use the software to establish new types of relationships with their customers, Boerries said. A manufacturer of network-connected refrigerators, for example, could use CrossPoint Server to monitor the health of each refrigerator it sells and automatically update and tune the software that runs inside of it.
A few startups have outlined similar goals, including FusionOne Inc., which has developed software used by service providers such as Sprint Corp. to allow its customers to more easily manage things like address books and calendars. Microsoft has also aimed to solve the device management problem with its emerging .Net initiative, in which its vision is to allow consumers and business to get personal information on any computing device over the Internet, no matter where they are or what device they are using.
"The goal is to get this new class of devices to work like the old ones -- plug them in and they just work," Enderle said.
However, making these devices work, and work in a way that is simple enough to entice average consumers, is a tall order that has yet to be resolved.