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Cover Story: Wireless Will Live, but Not Conquer

There have been a number of significant developments and breakthroughs in wireless technologies during the past year. Yet despite these advances , wireless is still nowhere near to 'knocking copper off the mountain.'


February 1, 2002  


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Results of a study from Forrester Research Inc. released last spring speak volumes about what is wrong and what is right with the world of wireless, even now. The findings, gleaned from interviews with IT personnel from 3,500 North American firms, showed that while its potential is unlimited, wireless still remains a ‘work-in-progress’ technology.

As an example, the majority of respondents indicated that while they planned to integrate wireless technology with their customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications sometime this year, most had no formal selection process in which to choose what project they would invest their money in.

Jordan Kendall, a Forrester analyst who specializes in the Canadian market, says that even though the technology is maturing, most organizations can still expect to come up against three pitfalls: too many projects focus on wireless gadgets ranging from pagers to personal digital assistants (PDAs); too much emphasis is put on personal information management (PIM) projects; and firms appear to be overlooking key mobile opportunities.

To prove his point, Kendall conducted a follow-up study, this time based on interviews with 35 large Canadian organizations (all but one having revenues of at least $1 billion) with wireless projects in their technology plans. As in the first study, aside from CRM and ERP initiatives, 77 per cent expected to provide wireless access to field services systems. According to Kendall, they will be lucky to get to that point because their current approaches won’t achieve the value they expect.

For example, a respondent with a chartered bank said most of his employees have company-provided WAP (Wide Area Protocol) phones, but that they were only playing around with them: “In meetings, they aren’t paying attention to what’s going on — they just send instant messages to each other,” he noted.

“I sent three of my planners for wireless training so they could ready for a mobile Siebel implementation,” said another respondent from a major manufacturing firm. “Now, they spend all of their time supporting a few executives who can’t figure out how to forward e-mail to their Blackberry.”

MILES TO GO

The focusing of energy on “cool devices” and elite users, instead of identifying places where a company really needs wireless automation, could end up being costly.

But such is the world of wireless, a bustling yet disjointed market that, despite all of the breakthroughs that have occurred during the past 12 months, is still many years away, if ever, from tipping the structured cabling industry off its perch.

“Wireless still has a long way to go,” contends Mark Maloney, a senior consultant at Ehvert Technology Services, a Toronto-based professional technology services company. “All you have to do is look at your cell phone and see how often service degrades. There are certainly some niche applications for wireless, but I don’t see it knocking copper off the mountain for awhile yet.”

Part of the problem is that whether you are talking about the IEEE’s 802.11a (a new specification for high-speed enterprise class wireless LANs), mobile Internet usage including m-commerce, or wireless data applications, it is still too early to tell whether some, none or all will be a raging success or end up relegated to the scrapheap like the Vax 9000, Digital Equipment Corp.’s first and last mainframe. The dilemma is that while each can be considered an exciting technology, success or failure will be determined by more important issues, such as whether or not they are economically viable.

An example of that is the wireless data market, the subject of a report from the Yankee Group released last October. The consulting firm concluded that while the past two years have witnessed a great deal of speculation about whether or not the market will grow, the more crucial question that must be answered is: Will wireless carriers make any money from offering these services?

“Everyone is quick to toss out potential services and applications that the carriers (or other content providers) can provide to enhance the end-user experience,” the report pointed out. “These include ideas such as sending coupons for a free coffee to your wireless phone every time you pass a Starbucks; the ability to call a taxi service and have the cab company immediately know where you are; or the capability of your wireless phone to recognize another chess player in your vicinity and allow you to play an interactive game.

“However, what the wireless data speculators have failed to address is how much consumers will actually be willing to pay for these ancillary, nice-to-have services, and more importantly, how the carriers/content providers will charge for them.”

That issue and many more formed the basis of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Technology Forecast: 2001-2003 entitled Mobile Internet: Unleashing the Power of Wireless. Its authors concluded that widespread mobile Internet usage has unlimited potential to change the face of business, but its success depends on the timely development of new applications designed for the unique characteristics of the mobile environment.

“To be successful, the mobile Internet will need to find its own dominant applications — it won’t just be the conventional Internet delivered on a handheld device,” says Terry Retter, a director with the firm’s strategic technology services group based in Menlo Park, CA.

“This is particularly true in regions where business professionals and consumers already have widespread access to PCs. There is a tremendous amount of innovation occurring around the mobile Internet, a technology that strives to provide both consumers and businesses with limitless access to information and applications.”

LIMITATIONS PERSIST

Today, mobile handheld devices such as mobile phones and PDAs have only small displays and limited storage, the report stated. The majority of devices lack a keyboard, and their wireless networks operate at speeds no faster than the dial-up modems of the late 1980s. The success stories from the initial generation of mobile Internet applications will be those that can offer compelling benefits in spite of these limitations.

“We are entering an age of personal wireless communications when more than one billion people will be within seconds of each other, no matter where they are, by means of a device they carry on their body, in their pocket or in their purse,” says Bill Cross, a PricewaterhouseCoopers management consultant and Canadian authority on the findings in the Technology Forecast: 2001-2003. “How these devices will connect to the Internet and interact with each other is the next big question left to be answered.”

According to the report, the mobile Internet will succeed only if new applications are developed that can take advantage of the “unique characteristics” of this environment. Once that occurs, it will provide a critical channel for businesses to interact not only with customers, but also with employees and business partners.

As far as wireless LANs are concerned, Iain Grant, Managing Director of the Yankee Group in Canada, a technology-consulting firm in Brockville, ON, is philosophical about how it will all evolve. “Despite the many benefits wireless networking has to offer, there are still many obstacles to overcome in order to ensure that wireless LANs reach their prime,” he wrote last year in Cabling Systems magazine.

“Research shows current users are satisfied with their WLAN experiences. However, potential users of WLANs are still wary of performance and security issues. Using network IDs, firewalls and other encryption techniques can ensure protection from potential eavesdroppers and hackers. And, as the obstacles are overcome, more users will be compelled to take advantage of wireless networks because of the lack of holes to drill, cables to lay, and complicated technologies that add to the complexities of networking.”

That does not mean two camps will have to be drawn up with structured cabling in one and wireless in the other. “I don’t see any
dissidence here, I see harmony,” Grant now says. “Gigabit backbones and branches are still going to be required.”

THE NEW 802.11a STANDARD

The key to the WLAN initiative is the new IEEE standard, 802.11a. According to Proxim Corp., a manufacturer of wireless LAN systems, the advantages this standard has over current technologies include greater scalability, better interference immunity and a speed of up to 54 Mbps and beyond. Proxim says the fact that it utilizes 300 MHz of bandwidth will ultimately allow for higher bandwidth applications and more users.

The specifications, the IEEE says, have been adopted to address both the Physical (PHY) and Media Access Control (MAC) layers, and are tailored to resolve compatibility issues between manufacturers of wireless LAN equipment.

Proxim contends in a white paper that the next-generation of enterprise-class wireless LAN technology will enable new wireless capabilities, including mobile access to streaming video and other multimedia content, the ability to transfer large files, and support for high-density user environments. In addition, the white paper says the 802.11a standard operates in the “uncongested” 5GHz band, so users will not face interference with cordless phones and Bluetooth devices in the “cluttered” 2.4GHz band.

Still, there are a number of issues to be answered, starting with the overall level of adoption. Maloney, for one, has no great expectations. “If I were a CIO looking at new technologies, why would I want to depart from a land line where I’m running 100 Base-T pretty darn cheap to go to wireless?” he asks. “Why would I want to make that bandwidth sacrifice?”

There are others who are more optimistic, including U.K.-based consulting firm Ovum Research, which estimates that if the many wireless players eventually get their act together, wireless LANs could evolve into a US$29 billion market by 2006. Ovum analyst Jessica Figueras says the promise is being held back by the different interests of the supplier groups involved.

“Wireless network operators tend to be keen on online-only solutions,” says Figueras. “Unsurprisingly, these involve the use of lots of expensive airtime. On the other hand, application vendors are keen for their customers to access their applications in any way that allows the full functionality to be retained, which rules out the use of many simple mobile devices.” As an example, she says wireless network operators must start to consider the needs of business customers separately from those of consumer customers.

BLUETOOTH SET TO SHINE

The future is not quite as uncertain for Bluetooth, that wireless technology named after Harald Blatlan II, the 10th century Danish king who united Denmark and Norway. It has taken more than seven years to get to the point where there is some substance in the Bluetooth market, but it finally appears to have arrived.

In fact, digital communications research firm Cahners In-Stat is now predicting that despite delays, economic slowdown and a “recent slew of negative reports,” the emerging Bluetooth market will shine. In-Stat reported that aside from hardware, there is a plethora of activity happening in application development, both on the client side and on the server/services side.

In December, 2001, Joyce Puscher, an In-Stat director, reported that activity has moved forward in the mobile phone, notebook PC and adapter space, with specialty adapters just beginning to show up for PDAs. Once people are educated on what the benefits are, she predicts demand will rise for products that include Bluetooth connectivity — as long as prices of products are reasonable. “The challenge,” says Puscher, “lies in getting the message across, and being able to educate the general public correctly in a variety of ways and channels.”

Research firm Frost & Sullivan says that the Bluetooth industry appears to have started to finally overcome the “excessive buzz and hype” that has marred its development in recent years. “In comparison to many other current communications technologies that took a decade or more to develop, the progress of Bluetooth has been spectacular and continues to develop,” says Michael Wall, a Frost & Sullivan research analyst. “The landslide of Bluetooth-enabled devices has not happened yet, but is deemed inevitable.”

The future also looks bright for the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) market. According to Venture Development Corp., a technology market research company, shipments of RFID systems are expected to increase by 24 per cent during the next four years and be worth an estimated US$2.65 billion by 2005.

The good news, according to Venture, is that virtually every economic sector and industry where data needs to be collected contains potential applications for the technology.

Since the chance of wireless usurping structured cabling anytime soon is as remote as fiber optics conquering copper in the near future, it will also have to live in harmony with traditional cabling technologies. “We’ve been hearing about fiber to the desktop for over 10 years and we’re still no closer,” Maloney says. “Fiber has its spot, copper has its spot and wireless has its spot. They’re all complimentary and they all have their place.”

Paul Barker, a contributing editor with the Business Information Group, specializes in e-commerce and Internet issues. He can be reached at pbarker@corporate.southam.ca.


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