Straight Talk About Wireless-An Interview with Andrew Seybold

The prospect of being able to access critical business data via a Web-enabled cell phone, Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or some other type of wireless device is certainly appealing to many professionals. But what does this really mean? From a practical standpoint, what kind of data can users realistically expect to be able to access or deliver using the latest wireless technology? And how close are we to making legacy data truly portable? In the following interview, industry analyst and mobile computing guru Andrew Seybold offers his thoughts on the subject, and explores this technology that promises to take us one step closer to anytime, anywhere information access.

MRS: As someone who has been closely monitoring the evolution of wireless data technology over the past decade, how would you characterize the progress that has been made in this area in the past year?

AS: Actually, I would categorize 1999 as both a very good year for wireless data, and a very bad year. The good news is that there was a lot done to help enable wireless access to information that people really want and need, including the formation of Wireless Knowledge, Omni Sky, and Palm.Net—all of which came into being in 1999. And, of course, Microsoft has been making lots of noises in this area, and Lotus put together an MSD, or Mobile Services Division. So, there were all these really neat things happening that together say people are really interested in wireless data. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that all the hype surrounding the Internet has now drifted into the wireless Internet and that’s a shame, because what that means is that lots of people have taken their eye off the ball. They’ve taken their eye off of what I believe people want, which is corporate data, which is sitting on the AS/400s and behind the firewalls. Instead, they’re trying to bring us news, weather and sports in living color, wirelessly and there’s a feeding frenzy surrounding that sort of thing—which is a real problem because it means that people are going to get swallowed up by the hype, and start believing the hype and then they’re going to be really disappointed at what actually is available and can be done.

MRS: So, what should users expect? You noted recently that you get a sense that wireless data is real and that it is about to become easier to implement and to use. Could you elaborate a bit on this? How would you rate wireless data technology today? Is it still evolving or is it now production-ready?

AS: The answer is both.

First of all, let’s explore some of the latest trends and developments that were evident at the most recent Wireless IT conference. In three major areas—the exhibit areas, as well as the conference sessions, and in the back rooms where the real development work is going on—what I came across in all three of these areas convinced me that most of the vendors out there are being realistic about what they are able to deliver today, and those who are interested in using this technology are being realistic about they can expect to achieve with it. There seems to be an overwhelming sense that access to some data where there was none before is better than no access—and that’s a good attitude for people who want to implement wireless today.

There are also other signs that suggest that the entire industry—with the exception of SprintPCS and Yahoo and all the people who are over-hyping all this stuff—the rest of the industry understands that there is no one company—whether it’s Microsoft, AT&T or whomever—there is no one company that can put everything together that’s needed to deliver what mobility workers need. So these companies are reaching out to each other to forge alliances and partnerships. I’m right in the middle of it, so there’s an awful lot of this stuff that I see that’s not public yet but there’s a lot of it coming, and that’s very good. Because once we get past the point of, “We’re an invincible company and we can do it all,” to, “Let’s look at this complex problem and figure out who we need to work with to make it happen,” things happen faster.

MRS: What makes implementing wireless data technology so complex?

AS: Let’s go back to the wireless telephone. A wireless telephone works like a wired telephone. It will call any other telephone in the world because that telephone has a telephone number. It is not dependent on anything but the infrastructure that’s behind it.

When you get into wireless data, it’s totally different. You can’t just call up data. IT managers protect their data behind firewalls and do all sorts of other things to prevent that. You can’t just let people into that resource—corporate data is, understandably, carefully guarded and protected.

The other thing is that when I talk about what’s happening with wireless data, I have a lot of empathy for IT managers. I look at an IT manager that started out running a glass house, then he lost some of his or her authority to the PC, and then to the network, and then we all came to this guy and said, “Look, now that we have portable computers, we want to be able to dial into your network.” So now we’re coming to him or her and saying, “We want you take all of your corporate databits, all of your assets and throw them into the ether so that we can catch them with our devices.” That’s pretty scary, it really is.

So, the bottom line is this: All of these technologies that we now use—wireless phones, pagers, notebooks, desktops—all of these were brought into corporations without executive or IT manager knowledge or approval—The PalmPilot, too. None of them required anybody to ask permission of anybody else, they just appeared.

Now, for the first time, we want to connect wirelessly and we have to ask somebody’s permission. And, when you ask for this kind of permission from an overworked IT manager —who isn’t convinced that the technology is fast enough, secure enough, or absolutely critical—the answer is typically going to be no. So that’s part of the issue, too.

Again, working with wireless data is not the same as working with a wireless phone. The wireless phone model says a Palm VII attached to the Internet is great. It doesn’t require any intervention or any special permissions, but it also doesn’t give me the data I want or need. It certainly sounds good and does provide an out of the box, wireless data solution. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen to have much value if what you’re really trying to get to is corporate data.

MRS: So exactly what kind of performance should users expect from wireless devices? Understanding that these minibrowsers can’t do everything and that this is not the ultimate solution in your mind, just where does this type of technology fit in, in terms of being able to access corporate data?

AS: Again, I’m going to tell you that there’s good news and bad news. Let me give you the bad news first. I think WAP phones could actually help to destroy wireless data. Now, let me explain. This is only in the United States. This has nothing to do with Europe or Asia.

Basically, there is no wireless network in the United States that gives me what I would consider a persistent connection. That is, that I’m always in range of, that’s always useable. You know that if you use a cell phone. You’re in buildings, you’re out of coverage, whatever.

Moreover, nearly 75 percent of the WAP phones that are coming out have no storage and no memory capability. They’re like a 3270 terminal tied to a mainframe. If the cord is broken, that terminal is useless. OK. Now, that’s a real danger, because if I get this phone expecting to be able to get to my calendar, or access inventory data, or whatever, then the first time that I’m in a meeting and I can’t get to that data because I’m out of the coverage area, I’m going to throw that phone away. So, that’s the danger that I see.

Now, the other side of that is, there are some WAP phones—for example Nokia has a 7100, NeoPoint has a phone called the 1000—that synchronize with desktops so that I have my calendar and my phone book and my other information, so even when I’m out of coverage, the phone is at least useful to me.

Basically, WAP phones will raise everybody’s awareness that wireless data is actually out there and that it works. I think the current generation of both WAP servers and WAP phones is going to give people a little taste, but won’t be useable on a daily basis. It’s going to be like the early days of wireless phones. In the early days of wireless phones, in the early 80s, you almost had to stop your car when you were within range to make a phone call. So that’s what wireless data is going to be like this year with WAP.

MRS: What about other kinds of wireless devices? With respect to accessing this business data, do you see a winner emerging between Windows CE devices and those based on the Palm platform?

AS: Today, it appears that Palm is carrying the battle and is the heir apparent to this space. Having said that, this doesn’t mean that Microsoft or somebody else might not be just as important next year. Because things change very quickly. I also have a theory that the end user doesn’t care what the operating system is. They care what the features and functions are. So, it’s almost not right to say who wins the operating system war for Internet appliances or hand-held computers or whatever, it’s who understands how those devices need to connect to the back ends.

MRS: What about the ability to not only receive data, but to be able to send information back to the host?

AS: Yes, sending it back today, from every wireless network, means that I can get it to the Internet, but it doesn’t mean I can get it through your firewall. That’s the single biggest impediment to widespread adoption of this technology—how to make it easy to get it through the firewall, and how to protect the corporate assets at the same time.

MRS: What about the mechanics of being able to do this? These devices are so small. How do you manage this on such a small device?

AS: There’s a whole industry being built around middleware and conversion so that a little bit of information on my hand-held will be translated to a lot of information on my AS/400. There’s a lot of that going on in that area, and that only promises to continue.

MRS: But you’re still convinced that these Web-enabled devices are not what the world really needs. Is that right?

AS: That’s correct. In fact, I have real heartburn with this. The former president of AT&T Wireless Data made a statement once that I steal from her all the time. She said that wireless access to the Internet is like making a surgical strike into the Internet. And she’s right. Part of the problem with what’s happening today is people that are sitting at 21-inch monitors on the desktop with a T1 line into the Internet are trying to give us that experience wirelessly, and it just doesn’t happen.

I have a real problem with the whole concept of a browser on a mobile phone or a Palm device, or anything where I, as the mobile worker, have to drive my browser to what it is I want. Let’s say I’m travelling to Dallas today. In my calendar is my American Airline flight number and the time. My browser model says that I close my calendar, I open my browser, I go to, I go through seven levels of menus, enter my flight number, get the update to the gate number, then maybe bring that back and cut and paste it into my calendar. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t make any sense to me.

What I want to do is to go into my calendar where it’s already entered, double-click on it, and have a smart back end go and get me that information, so that I don’t physically have a drive a browser to the Internet. And, by the way, it should also be smart enough to say to me, “Here’s a weather report for Dallas if you want it, and since you have a Hertz rental car, I’m downloading the directions from the airport to the hotel during an off-peak period of time.” That’s what we need wirelessly.

If I turn that to an AS/400 back end in a corporation where I’ve got a database, I would go to my calendar for today, double-click on the company I’m going to go see, and in the background, I’d get an update on order status, inventory, if they hadn’t paid their invoices on time—all that stuff without having to go to a browser and get it. That’s what needs to happen before people are really going to embrace this technology.

MRS: How will this be implemented in your mind?

AS: The application shouldn’t have to change at all. What I’m driving at is that the most important piece of any wireless connectivity is a smart back end somewhere that knows how to filter and accumulate and drive traffic. That’s what Wireless Knowledge is meant to be, that’s what OmniSky is meant to be, that’s what Palm.Net is meant to be. People see that and they’re making the first steps to get there.

MRS: Could you talk a little bit about Wireless Knowledge and these other partnerships?

AS: Wireless Knowledge is a joint venture between Microsoft and Qualcomm. The model of it is perfect in my estimation, except that it’s only for Microsoft. If you’re an IT manager and you have an IT operation and you’ve got a mobile workforce that wants wireless, there’s all these issues that I’ve just talked about—security and everything else. Wireless Knowledge has a Network Operation Center outside of your firewall so now what you do is you put in a secure connection between the Wireless Knowledge servers and your servers—totally secure. Then Wireless Knowledge gives you the connection to the various wireless networks for various types of devices, so it’s a way to outsource wireless connectivity to your I/O shop.

MRS: Obviously this is a Microsoft solution, as you indicated. Where does this leave a company like IBM?

AS: IBM is definitely interested, and they know they need to do something like this. The problem with IBM is that somebody would have to get some of Lotus’ products, some of the Pervasive Computing Group’s products, and some of the company’s other products and put them all together. And, in my opinion, that’s not likely to happen.

But there are 46 million Lotus Notes seats in the United States and there are 36-million Exchange Server seats, so the IBM Lotus camp is substantial. Furthermore, a vast majority of these Lotus Notes seats are with Fortune 500 customers.

MRS: So there’s a tremendous opportunity there.

AS: Yes, that’s right. There’s some work that’s being done, but not on the scale that’s needed. One of the biggest mistakes IBM made, in my opinion, is that they owned something called IBM Global Network (IGN), and they let it go. IGN is an intranet that has 24,000 corporations using it. If they had hung on to it, and wirelessly enabled it, they would have had a wireless entre into 24,000 corporations with a secure backbone, and instead they just sold it off to AT&T.

MRS: OK, so overall, what do you see as the strengths and limitations of wireless data technology today, and just how far along are we?

AS: I believe that when you’re mobile you need the same information available to you as when you’re sitting at your desk. What that means is that it’s vitally important for the 46 or 47 million mobility workers in the United States to have the same access to data as they have to voice. One of the things that I say to people is, “How many of you can guarantee me that the most important message you receive today will come to your voicemail and not to your e-mail?” So, e-mail is becoming just as mission critical as voicemail.

Having said that, this is a voice centric world. And I think companies often look at the size of the wireless data market and assume that everybody that has a wireless phone has a need for wireless data. I don’t believe that for a minute. I think 25 percent to 30 percent of the voice market has a need for wireless data.

As to how far we’ve come, we’re probably two-thirds of the way and it has taken us six years to get here. It will probably take two more years to get the rest of the way. And to get the rest of the way, we will need to get the security issues resolved, the technology will have to be easier to implement, and we will need to have higher speed wireless data networks—which we will have—not third generation, but higher speeds than we have today.

MRS: So the question is, are we going to be able to do more than check e-mail or stock prices on wireless devices in the year ahead?

AS: Yes, I think so. I think you’re going to be able get to corporate data if you want it or need it. I run my life on my two-way pager. I get my e-mail, I have my phone book, my calendar, I can redirect attachments to be sent to a fax machine if I’m not near a computer, I can query a database in my office to find out if somebody is a subscriber or not. So all of that is going to be available and useful to us this year, but not to the faint at heart. You’re going to have to be dedicated and willing to put up with some pain to get to that point in your corporation.

MRS: Is it going to be costly? Are the early adopters going to have to pay a high price to be able to access their corporate data, wirelessly?

AS: You know, the return on investment on this type of technology is something that has eluded all of us for years. There are lots of success stories—Sears claims they get 1.8 more service calls per day/per truck because they’ve implemented wireless data. But going into it, they can’t do a spreadsheet that says, “Here’s the savings.” And, a lot of the savings can’t be measured that way. A lot of the benefit is difficult to quantify—you may know that by using wireless technology that you’re better than your competitor at getting your customer information. But how do you measure that? So, my belief is that you can readily justify about 50 percent of the cost, and the other 50 percent has got to be a gut feel that you know this is the right thing to do for your company to keep them ahead of the competition. And even though that benefit may be difficult to quantify, it certainly counts for a lot.

Andrew Seybold is an industry analyst specializing in the convergence of mobile computing and wireless communication technologies, or what he calls,” connected mobility.” His newsletter, Andrew Seybold’s Outlook ( (new window)), explores the latest trends and developments in this area.

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