WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- Are you a gadget geek who must know about every smart phone before it hits shelves? Perhaps you're an engineer at a struggling startup who's trying to find out what the competition is doing. Thanks to the Web and the U.S. government , all it takes is a simple search to find out what's coming down the pipeline.
Any product with a radio in it must undergo a battery of tests to gain approval from the Federal Communications Commission before it can be sold in the U.S. The agency posts test reports, documents and photos of these unannounced devices for all to see on its Web site.
For technophiles and small-business owners alike, this is a great way to get the scoop on the latest products coming to the market. Personally, I'm among the gadget geeks looking to know more about HTC's spiffy Hero smart phone, which runs (GOOG)'s new Android operating system. So far, the Hero is only available in Europe. The company has announced, vaguely, that "a distinct North American version" will become available in the U.S. later this year, but we want details and proof.
Here's how to find out if the FCC has more information:
First, go to the FCC's Equipment Authorization Search page. Pay particular attention to the categories "applicant name," "grant date" and "application purpose."
The more fields you fill in, the more detailed your results will be. You can fill in as many as you like, but here are the fields that will yield the most productive searches:
Grantee code: This is a three-character code assigned to any company that has applied for FCC approval. It applies to any documents associated with that company. If you're planning to search for smart phones, you could type in "BCG" for Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) (AAPL) , "O8F" for Palm (Stock Quote: PALM) (PALM) , "IHD" for Motorola (Stock Quote: MOT) (MOT) , "IHD" for Samsung Electronics and "L6A" for Research In Motion (RIMM) (Stock Quote: RIMM), maker of the BlackBerry.
Despite its convenient three-letter name, the grantee code for HTC is "NM8."
(AAPL) (PALM) (MOT) (RIMM) Applicant name: If you're not hip enough to know a company's grantee code, you can try its name. It's generally not necessary to type in the company's full name. Usually "Samsung" will yield reports from "Samsung Electronics," for example.
Application purpose: This distinguishes applications for new products from those for modifications to existing products. If you're looking for the former, choose "original grant" from the drop-down menu.
(AAPL) (PALM) (MOT) (RIMM) Grant date: This date range is important unless you want to see every radio-sporting product that a company has ever submitted for approval. If you're searching for the first time, narrow the range down to the last month to find products that haven't already hit the shelves.
(AAPL) (PALM) (MOT) (RIMM) "The timeframe between FCC posting and product availability can vary from a few days to a few months, depending on the product, its complexity, planned launch date and other factors," says Maciej Kranz, a marketing vice president in the wireless networking business unit at Cisco (CSCO) , which submits all sorts of Wi-Fi equipment to the FCC.
(AAPL) (PALM) (MOT) (RIMM) (CSCO) Product description: This is where you type "phone" if you're looking for a phone. If you're searching for a harder-to-describe gadget, it's best to leave this field blank.
To search for the Hero, I conducted an advanced search for an original grant from HTC. I narrowed the grant-date range to search from July 1 to August 1, and then typed "phone" in the product description field.
I clicked "start search," which generated 12 results along with details such as their FCC identification numbers and proposed radio frequencies. But if you're following along and look closely at the FCC ID column, you'll see that really only two devices came up in the search.
While each device has a unique ID number, applicants sometimes must file more than one report for devices with multiple purposes. In this case, both phones operate in multiple frequencies, indicating that they will probably support wireless and cellular functions. In other words, they're smart phones.
My search generated a phone with the ID "NM8HOT." Inspired by its "HOT" title, I clicked "details." That yielded an "exhibits list" of geeky-juicy documents related to the device. If you're lucky with your searches, you'll find pictures, diagrams and user manuals. In our case, there was a "confidential request" letter asking the FCC to keep photos and user manuals off the site, so as not to give competitors "an unfair advantage." This is pretty common.
"The confidentiality thing is dirt simple," says Ron Seide, president of Summit Data Communications, a small Akron, Ohio, company that makes radio modules for industrial equipment and medical devices. "If I forgot to do this, I'd have to fire myself." (I know of one guy at a major company who lost his job after forgetting -- twice -- to file confidentiality requests.)
See how easy that was?
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