Entrepreneur Hopes to Make Bored Travelers Log On and Say 'Ooh'

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By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, January 26, 2006

G ary S. Murray II 's new vision for the WiFi world goes something like this: A twenty-something traveler is in an airport with time to kill. He checks for wireless Internet access, finds it costs $7.95 to log on, refuses to pay the charge and instead logs on to Ooh TV , the free alternative created by Murray's Landover-based company. After wading through an ad or two, the traveler is entertained with short docudramas about emerging rap stars, fashion models and local nightclubs.

The way Murray sees it, filmmakers win, advertisers win and he wins.

In some aspects, Murray's plan echoes the early days of the Web, when content providers such as America Online Inc. expected users to accept what they were given. What wasn't taken into consideration 10 years ago -- and what may limit Ooh TV Inc. now -- is the modern consumer's appetite for variety on the Internet.

Murray made his name in the wireless industry with Wise Technologies Inc. , an early WiFi provider that set up hot spots in airports and RV parks. In June, that company was sold to Icoa Inc ., a Warwick, R.I., wireless access provider, and the entrepreneur's attention turned to his next venture. His father, Gary S. Murray Sr., is a well-known Prince George's County businessman who built two $100 million technology businesses and founded the Landover-based venture capital firm HumanVision LLC.

Murray contends that every day, thousands of consumers find themselves in wireless hot spots and have the capability to sign on but don't want to pay access fees sometimes charged in cafes and airports. That's the untapped audience he's hoping advertisers will pay to reach.

Already, Murray has signed up a cadre of independent filmmakers to contribute streaming video content aimed at 25- to 35-year-olds, and Icoa agreed to begin offering Ooh TV at some of its 1,500 hot spots in the next month.

"We want to dip our foot in the pool and see where it goes," said Rick Schiffman , chief executive of Icoa. "I don't know that a 100 percent content-subsidized business model is going to prove out, but . . . a hybrid business model could work out very well."

Still, Murray's Internet TV venture hinges on a few variables that may not work in his favor. While some airports and coffee shops still charge for WiFi, the trend is clearly toward free access. If airports go the way of hotels and city squares offering open hot spots, consumers with the vast Internet at their fingertips may have no interest in the ad-laden limited content Ooh TV offers.

And even if free WiFi doesn't become pervasive, the company's success will still depend on the patronage of a very small market: consumers with wireless technology who won't pay an access fee but would choose Ooh TV's content over a book or newspaper. Meanwhile, cell phones are increasingly able to tap into the Web regardless of their proximity to hot spots, a progression that could make specialized WiFi content irrelevant.

It's too early to say whether Ooh TV will become the household name Murray is hoping for, or if-- like his last company -- it'll grow just big enough for him to find a nice exit strategy.

'A Better Way'

Most of the desks in Curam Software 's new Herndon office are empty at the moment. The firm's executives hope that won't be the case for long.

In the next year, Curam expects to double its U.S. staff to almost 100, but those plans are contingent on the company's ability to persuade state governments to overhaul the way they track social services.

The Irish firm, which opened its U.S. headquarters here last week, sells software designed to help social services agencies organize information on caseworkers and clients. Curam's executives say most government agencies are still using outdated computer systems that don't allow data to be transferred, for instance, from a Medicaid program to an office that manages workers' compensation. Federal officials have been pushing for modernization since the 1980s, but an October report by Forrester Research Inc. said most state efforts to transform their human services technology have been "a resounding failure."

Curam, recently named the fastest-growing tech firm in Ireland, has already implemented its system in some U.S. states but still faces an uphill battle. The company must compete with large government contractors and persuade state agencies to abandon systems that have been in place for decades.

Utah chose to use the company's software in all of its social services agencies after evaluating proposals from half a dozen government contractors. The error rate has been cut because there's less paperwork, said Stephen Fletcher , the state's chief information officer, but the biggest advantage is that a caseworker "can find out all of the benefits a citizen is eligible for." So, for instance, a caseworker helping a resident obtain food stamps can also see if the person qualifies for child-care benefits rather than sending the person to stand in line at several agencies.

"We're not trying to cure world hunger here," said Ernie Connon , President of Curam's U.S. operations. "What we're trying to say is, from a technology perspective, there's a better way to do this."

Overheard

"My main issue today, in protecting us, is protecting the content flowing through our systems. . . . Our security vulnerability is our Achilles' heel," John G. Grimes , chief information officer of the Department of Defense , told a crowd of nearly 700 military personnel and government contracting officials at a three-day conference on "network-centric" warfare last week.

Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene on Thursdays. Her e-mail ismccarthye@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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