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The New Wireless Economy

It's a buzz-phrase in the industry that's usually used to promote a new wireless data product or service. But what really happens when one takes an economy and cuts the wires?


September 1, 2002  


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It’s no secret that the wireless industry is one of the fastest-evolving industries in the hi-tech universe. Even in the general telecommunications slowdown of 2002, announcements are made every week of new partnerships and new opportunities, new devices, new network technology and new research and development activities.

Some of these developments will get no further than the news release. Others will result in products and services with only limited success. Yet some of the advances taking place are poised to stimulate significant changes in the ways in which Canadians conduct business and enjoy their personal lives.

ISSUES MORE COMPLICATED WITH DATA

The right application, while important, is not enough on its own to guarantee success: Wireless service providers must get the marketing, pricing and customer support right. This may sound obvious, but the critical issue here is that as new wireless-based data and Internet applications are introduced, the marketing, pricing and customer support issues become more complicated. In the wireless voice market, for example, pricing is based on the amount of time the customer spends on the phone.

The question is how much to bill, by the second, for given days of the week or hours of the day. With data, the carrier must first determine whether to bill by the amount of time, by the amount of data that’s sent over the connection, or by a combination of the two.

Customer service is even more of an issue. In the voice world, problems relate to the phone, the network, or customer education – and the wireless company takes responsibility for all three. But introduce data to the equation, and things get thorny. The straightforward phone can become a Frankenstein’s monster of devices, applications and operating systems, which may or may not be compatible with each other. Customer education requirements balloon accordingly.

These are issues that all wireless companies acknowledge they have to address. But the ideal solution remains elusive and, for the time being at least, the customer is often forced into the role of systems integrator. As a consequence, wireless data customers are primarily early adopters — those with the inclination to master the technology — and those in vertical markets where wireless data provides a substantial benefit, such as companies with large numbers of field service personnel.

INTERESTING CHANGES

Even so, we’re already seeing some interesting changes in business and personal behaviour as the result of wireless voice and wireless data technology. Most examples from wireless carriers are anecdotal, and many come from within their own companies, but they are good indicators of — for example — the opportunities and challenges an organization faces when deciding whether to equip its employees with wireless devices.

Instant messaging to mobile devices — such as the BlackBerry from Research In Motion Ltd., a wirelessly connected Palm Pilot, or any digital wireless phone equipped with Short Message Service — is already changing the workplace. Workers in knowledge-based sectors already understand the value of information sharing and the ability to build upon layers of information through Internet newsgroup types of multiple-threaded discussions.

And these types of discussion work well in a wireless environment as it enables a participant to drop into and out of conversations as he or she has the opportunity. For people who need to oversee several projects this type of connectivity can be invaluable.

INFORMAL COMMUNICATION

What’s more, a very informal communications network develops between people using instant messaging applications. Messages are sent and received discreetly, from anywhere to anywhere, at any time. And instead of sitting in an e-mail or voicemail inbox, waiting for the recipient to come to them, these messages are sent to wherever the recipient happens to be at that moment.

The content in an instant message is brief and to the point, with little or no social overhead. Information that might take 15 minutes to retrieve in a phone conversation can be shared in seconds via a mobile data device. The result is an organization where things can happen very quickly. In this type of environment, there’s little need for meetings in the traditional sense, where people gather around a table to discuss projects or activities. Indeed, people may spend much more of their working life outside the office, yet still connected through a wireless device.

This poses many issues for companies: everything from management and human resources to planning office space. Users and wireless companies would benefit from more information on what happens when wireless data services are introduced to the workplace.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached at 416-878-7730 or tpmarshall@eol.ca.


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