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UNPLUGGED GURUS

We know Bill Gates as the father of Windows, Steve Jobs as the man behind the iPod, and Sergei Brin and Larry Page as the geeks who brought us Google. When it comes to the new wireless revolution, however, many of its pioneers aren't even as well known as American Idol reject William Hung. Here is an eclectic mix of communications gurus who helped change our lives.

RAJIV MODY

CHAIRMAN, SASKEN LTD.

The next time a New Yorker dials 911 on a cell phone and his location pops up on the emergency operator's screen, the caller should thank an unassuming software engineer thousands of miles away in Bangalore, India. The man is 46-year-old Rajiv Mody, founder and chairman of Sasken Ltd., one of the world's leading providers of wireless-communications software. When Japan's NEC was looking for a way to provide two-way wireless video-conferencing, it turned to Sasken, and so have companies like Ericsson, Intel and Sharp as they sought to upgrade their products' multimedia capabilities.

This icon of Indian technology was founded, oddly enough, in a Silicon Valley garage, on about $40,000 of Mody's savings. Two years later, in 1991, Mody--who was born in Gujarat state and educated at Brooklyn Polytechnic--moved his fledging company to Bangalore, a daring step at a time when Indian bureaucracy and currency regulations still laid down a formidable barrier to international business. The move gave him an edge in hiring the best graduates of India's technical universities, and helped infuse Sasken with an austere corporate culture. Everyone works in identical cubicles and flies coach class--modesty inspired by Mody's two great heroes, Mahatma Gandhi and Warren Buffett. Austere but, at the same time, ferocious: "Everybody in this country has fire in his or her belly," Mody says. "We have a great future before us."

ANTHONY TOWNSEND

COFOUNDER, NYCWIRELESS

Like many ideas that changed the world, this one began on a college campus. As a graduate student in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late '90s, Anthony Townsend, through his friends at MIT's renowned Media Lab, was turned on to the possibilities of what we know today as Wi-Fi. On his return to New York City in 2000, Townsend became obsessed with the idea of free, shared wireless connectivity in public spaces. A year later he and a dozen other like-minded New Yorkers founded a nonprofit called NYCwireless, cajoling coffee shops, office buildings and parks into making Wi-Fi signals freely available to the unplugged masses. "We were afraid that commercial companies would do it first, but if we could stake our claim to places like Bryant Park, [in New York], they wouldn't be able to," says Townsend. "Just as park benches and drinking fountains are free, we felt we could turn Wi-Fi into a public amenity."

As public Wi-Fi access has taken off around the globe, Townsend, now 30, has focused on bigger issues. He and NYCwireless are lobbying the U.S. government for public access to unused parts of the radio spectrum. They're raising awareness of security flaws in Wi-Fi. And they're encouraging gearheads to come up with more compelling uses for wireless. "We're looking for interesting things to do with Wi-Fi that help build local communities, not help people escape them." The revolution, it seems, will be digitized.

LEE KI TAE

PRESIDENT OF TELECOMMUNICATIONS, SAMSUNG

With a military background in communications, Lee Ki Tae naturally gravitated toward Samsung's transistor-radio division when he joined the company in 1971. A decade later, as color-television sales boomed, most of his colleagues switched to what they saw as the wave of the future. But Lee stuck with radio, which he saw as his "destiny"--and thus was in a perfect position to take over Samsung's cell-phone division, just in time for it to become one of the company's hottest products.

Lee, 55, weathered some difficult times. The low point was in 1995, when chairman Lee Kun Hee, disturbed by reports of quality problems, ordered the public burning of 150,000 brand-new Samsung phones. Since then Lee Ki Tae's division has emerged as a worldwide leader in cell-phone quality and technology. The company has roughly 12 percent of the world market, behind only Nokia and Motorola.

With a near-captive domestic market in cell-phone-crazed South Korea, Samsung has been able to engineer, test and roll out new features before many of its competitors do, and to command a premium price for its phones as well. It was the first company to introduce cell phones with televisions, cameras, camcorders and MP3 players. The company envisions a future in which the cell phone "will no longer be a phone," as Lee puts it, but "the hub of all gadgets, for watching television, listening to music or surfing the Internet." Of course, makers of laptops and handheld communicators think the same thing, but Lee believes, the cell phone has already won the war.

GEORGE POLK

MANAGING DIRECTOR, THE CLOUD

George Polk seems to belong in a grand corporate boardroom. The 41-year-old has studied ancient Mongolian history at Harvard, worked in the chairman's office at Merrill Lynch, launched "four or five" high-tech companies and served as a U.N. observer of elections in Central America. And now? He works long days in a Soho, London, office among the gaudy gaming machines normally found in a British pub.

Polk, a longtime cheerleader for wireless, is back at the sharp end of business as an entrepreneur. His latest venture: to bring the benefits of Wi-Fi to Britain's pubgoers and traveling laptoppers. His Wi-Fi network--the Cloud--is the largest and fastest growing in Europe with more than 3,900 access points. Need to check your e-mails on the hoof? Just step up to the bar, order a pint and hook up. And it's not only pubs. More than 50 percent of Cloud hotspots are now in airports, motorway service stations and other sites. Polk plans to expand to five countries by year's end. Simplicity for the user, says Polk, is key to the success of any technology. "If you make it easy for people to communicate, they will. If you don't, they won't." That seems simple enough.

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