A half dozen former executives of 3-D software developer Virtus have banded together to create a way to send documents over wireless networks, much the same way Adobe Acrobat did for computer networks and the Internet.

AirEight has been in stealth mode since it was founded last November, but it recently closed on a seed investment by undisclosed angel investors in the Triangle and elsewhere around the country and launched a marketing campaign featuring sponsorship of a CART race car to obtain international exposure.

The company’s name is a play on the word “aerate,” and officials hope to infuse enough air into notoriously slow wireless networks to transmit files without long lag times, says Frank Boosman, chief marketing officer for the company.

The technology behind AirEight was developed by David Smith, who founded Virtus 12 years ago and later played an integral role its gaming spinoffs Red Storm Entertainment and Timeline Computer Entertainment with best-selling authors Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, respectively. In 1998, Smith helped start Neomar, a San Francisco-based company that created the browser for the BlackBerry wireless e-mail platform.

Not waiting a generation

While working at Neomar, where he remains chairman, Smith realized sending documents at wireless network speeds that, at a few kilobits per second, are much slower than even dial-up modem connections, let alone the high-speed lines many people are used to, left a lot to be desired.

He developed software that optimizes the file transfer process so a document can be sent over existing networks and be viewed on a smart phone or hand-held device in its original format in a matter of seconds, Boosman says.

Other companies pursuing the same idea, such as Veratium or My Docs Online, are either building products that rely on the capacity of next-generation networks or reformat a document during transfer to deliver just plain text, Boosman says. He also notes that Adobe Systems has a wireless version of Acrobat that does the latter. (He was one of the original marketers for Acrobat and its PDF standard for document transmittal.)

“We’re certainly rooting for the next generation of cellular, but to depend on that and getting constant access to it is like putting a gun to your head,” he says. “We (also) think most people would rather see a document as originally intended rather than a stripped-down text-only version.”

Market research firm In-Stat/MDR predicts the number of business users transmitting data over wireless networks will grow six-fold by 2006, to 39 million. Consulting firm eTForecasts expects the number of wireless users overall to top 700 million by then, almost double the number of traditional wired web surfers.

Military, sales are big markets

AirEight expects to begin its initial product trials in the next two months, and the first market it is pursuing is the military. The Pentagon wants to enable its field operations for wireless communications, Boosman says, adding that company officials have been working closely with Army Signal Corps officers to have the corps test the company’s software.

Other markets AirEight sees as having large potential include enterprise resource planning and sales force automation in a number of industries. Pharmaceuticals is one such example because drugs have extensive technical documentation that a field sales representative could immediately call up and print out via a fax machine.

The company expects to conclude its test phase and begin delivering its first product in the third quarter, Boosman says. That also is the time frame for the firm to line up its first round of venture capital, he says, and it hopes to announce some partnerships with wireless providers this summer.

In addition to Smith, who serves as AirEight’s chairman and chief technology officer, and Boosman, the other Virtus alumni working with the new company include:

  • Richard Boyd, president and chief executive (Virtus sales vice president and president of spinoff 3dvillage)
  • Bill Gibson, vice president of engineering (Virtus director of development and chief technology officer of spinoff NxView Technologies)
  • Jim Hayne, financial advisor (chief financial officer of Virtus Entertainment)