KC's tech future may be cutting its teeth now

Kansas City,MO (11-15-2002)

From The Business Journal of Kansas City
By Charlie Anderson

It has the look and feel of one of those high-flying tech startups.

You know the type colorful furniture, two-sided business cards, Eminem blaring from a translucent boom box. The type that gives venture capitalists nightmares.

But pull back the curtain, and you'll find there is more than meets the eye in the office at 7300 College Blvd.

Your first hint is Mike McCamon. A year ago, he was the director of wireless evangelism (his actual title) for Intel Corp. Yes, that Intel, the Silicon Valley chip-maker with a market capitalization of more than $123 billion.

Today, McCamon is executive director of Bluetooth Special Interest Group Inc. (SIG), a trade association financed by the world's largest tech companies that has brought its headquarters to Overland Park.

The group's challenge is nothing if not colossal: Make a skeptical market believe in Bluetooth, a fledgling wireless technology forecast as a $12 billion industry by 2006.

In the short term, Bluetooth's presence means Kansas City will gain a research lab while becoming a central meeting location for some of tech's biggest players. In the long term, the city could evolve into the nation's hub for Bluetooth product development, perhaps spurring a cottage industry and parading a steady stream of tech's best and brightest through the area.

But after a year of hype and product rollout, the tech community remains wary of whether Bluetooth products will work. The SIG has landed in Kansas City at perhaps its defining moment.

Aside from the more than 2,000 companies that pay dues, Bluetooth SIG is managed by nine global companies that have about half a trillion dollars in stock traded on U.S. markets alone: 3Com Corp., Agere Systems Inc., LM Ericsson Telephone Co., IBM Corp., Intel, Microsoft Corp., Motorola Inc., Nokia Corp. and Toshiba Corp.

McCamon wants their presence to transform Kansas City's image.

"To me, that's really exciting," he said.

A world without cables

First of all, Bluetooth is not your dentist's idea of scaring you.

Named after a Danish king who unified Denmark and part of Norway into a single kingdom, Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology comprised of tiny computer chips in electronic devices that talk to one another and eliminate cables.

With a Bluetooth chip, your cell phone could become a universal remote. It could open your garage door, tell your living room stereo to play a song stored in your phone or print a file from your computer.

But a recent demonstration shows that Bluetooth still is on training wheels. McCamon attempts to send contact information from his Sony-Ericsson cell phone to a Palm Pilot, both of which have Bluetooth chips. It doesn't work.

McCamon fusses around with some obscure settings on the Palm. The phone and the Palm are using Bluetooth chips of different generations.

"We have some growing pains," McCamon said.

That's been the frustration of Ken Delaney, an analyst with Gartner Inc., a tech research and advisory firm based in Stamford, Conn. Most recently, he said, it took him about an hour to figure out how two Bluetooth-enabled devices communicated.

"And we know what we're doing," he said. "Their logo doesn't stand for much these days."

That's why the likes of Microsoft and Intel have thrown their dollars behind the Overland Park headquarters.

Coming to KC

Imagine you were in McCamon's shoes.

It's March, and you've just given up your seat on Bluetooth SIG's board to become executive director. Sensing that the technology is at a crossroads, the SIG wants a world headquarters and full-time staff.

European members lobby for cities such as Copenhagen. The West Coast contingent lobbies for Silicon Valley.

Then you stand before them and announce your first choice: Kansas City.

"I don't think anyone thought he'd say that," said Mike Foley, a software architect at Microsoft who is chairman of Bluetooth SIG's board.

But the choice made perfect sense to McCamon.

The Overland Park office cost 50 percent less than comparable space in California. By being two time zones closer to Europe, McCamon's staff can call London during regular business hours.

"And," McCamon said, "I don't have to worry about hiring secretaries who want to take two-hour breaks to go walk on the beach."

But mostly, McCamon came to Kansas City for redemption.

"There's a saying that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," he said. "I'm part of the problem."

The problem: Kansas City's brain drain in the tech sector.

Born in Emporia, raised in Wichita, schooled in Lawrence, McCamon consistently has fled Kansas City. Whether working for Apple Computers or a number of high-tech startups in town, he was a good bet to be lured away to another city.

Now that he's back, McCamon wants to make Kansas City realize the enormous potential in nurturing a high-tech community.

"We need a change of attitude," he said. "I think this city could do a lot to be more world-class."

Big impact?

Even in the close-knit Kansas City tech community, Bluetooth has yet to make much of a splash.

"They came in under the cover of night," said David Frankland, president and CEO of KCCatalyst Inc. and a former colleague of McCamon at Informix.

That's about to change. McCamon has been in serious talks with the University of Kansas' Information & Telecommunication Technology Center (ITTC) about opening a research lab to test Bluetooth products and give researchers and students a pipeline to the world's big-name developers.

"Once you have a set of people who understand the technology, it'll just branch off from there," McCamon said.

Although ITTC Director Victor Frost is hesitant to announce that Bluetooth will open a lab in Lawrence, he is downright giddy about the possibilities.

"We're very excited about the potential here," he said. "We see it as a major opportunity for economic development."

First discussed in 1994 by Ericsson, which quickly partnered with Intel and IBM, Bluetooth has struggled getting to market. Delaney blamed vendors who can't agree on a formal certification process.

Delaney wants Bluetooth to learn a lesson from "Wi-Fi" a longer-range, faster wireless technology. WiFi connects devices via the Internet and usually is used on campuses or complexes.

At a University of New Hampshire lab, a formal body tests and certifies Wi-Fi products before they go to market.

E. Michael Froening, wireless manager of the lab, said students have become experts in the technology, which has translated into several Wi-Fi startups.

KU could be that lab for Bluetooth.

But even without a Bluetooth lab, Gartner predicts that 560 million Bluetooth-enabled devices will be sold by 2005.

Ken Furer, an analyst for IDC, a research firm based in Framingham, Mass., said Bluetooth chips will produce $2.6 billion in revenue by 2006.

Taking into account all the revenue Bluetooth technology will generate, San Francisco-based Zelos Research Group LLC estimated revenue of $12 billion by 2006 for tech and telecom companies.

"I've been asked a lot by the national media: 'Why Overland Park, Kansas?'" McCamon said. "I think the answer to that question is, 'Why not?'"

For more information, contact ITTC.

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