A World Without Wires: Leaving Land Lines Behind

Imagine a world in which you leave the office with your notebook computer -- breaking free of the wired LAN -- yet maintaining a wireless connection at near ISDN speeds to your corporate network. As you ride in a car that a co-worker is driving across the dessert from Los Angeles to a trade show in Las Vegas, you're still connected.

Under the notebook’s hood, your system seamlessly switches its connection from the LAN to a wireless WAN (WWAN) provider, then kicks over to a slower, but more broadly reaching cellular-type connection once you travel beyond WWAN’s range. But none of this matters to you; all you notice is that you can surf the corporate network as if you were at your desk in the office.

This is not commonplace today, but wireless WAN providers are working toward such a scenario.

The world is going wireless. A glance around any airport proves it: people talking on cellular phones, even though the old-fashioned land-line pay phones are a few short feet away.

Players of all kinds -- software vendors such as Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com) and Oracle Corp. (www.oracle.com), the big three networking vendors, hardware vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (www.hp.com) and IBM Corp. (www.ibm.com), handheld equipment vendors, and service providers -- are either entering into or expanding their presence in the wireless market.

Although corporate adoption of wireless computing has been slow, vertical markets are a different story. Wireless computing via wireless LANs, handheld devices and wireless computing stations, have been used in healthcare and manufacturing long enough to become the norm.

Michael Hegeman, the wireless program manager for HP North America, says the Internet and e-mail are the two main driving forces that will bring wireless to corporations.

"The application is going to drive wireless, and the Internet is that application," he says.

Limitations

A number of limitations are inhibiting the adoption of wireless computing in horizontal markets. Performance of wireless technologies, limited coverage areas, and price deter customers from moving to wireless solutions. Security is also perceived as enough of a threat that some IT departments list it as a reason against implementing wireless solutions.

Performance is perhaps the biggest of these. Wireless networks have been playing catch-up to wired LAN data transfer rates. The standard speed for wireless LANs is 10 MBps; wired LAN users enjoy tenfold speeds.

Dave Casey, technology specialist at Xerox, supports 250 employees in the San Francisco area, 60 of whom have notebooks equipped with wireless modems to transfer data back to corporate headquarters via the Internet.

Casey cites the expense of the wireless modems and service as a reason that upper management won’t provide all his employees with one. He also says security is an issue. But performance is the real reason that more people across more departments don’t have wireless access at Xerox.

"I’m just frustrated that it’s not faster," he says. "I also wish they’d expand the coverage area."

Casey’s service provider is Metricom Inc. (www.metricom.com), which provides wireless modem and WWAN services in San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C. For its part, Metricom plans to expand its service into 12 cities this year and into more than 40 cities by summer 2001. Other service providers are expected to bring coverage to similar areas as well.

Getting Better All the Time

Despite its limitations, wireless computing has advantages: increased productivity, real-time access to corporate resources, and more consistent communications. The downsides, such as performance and security, are being worked on.

Wireless users are prone to be more productive. A recent study by market research firm Cahners In-Stat Group Inc. (www.instat.com) says about 29 percent of enterprise employees are away from their desks at least 25 percent of the time they are at work. So -- before even leaving the office -- it’s easy to see how being able to carry a computer from one room to the next would be beneficial.

"When you think about the concept of having the corporate database with you wherever you go, it fundamentally enhances the way you work," says Jeff Morris, director of marketing at Sierra Wireless Inc. (www.sierrawireless.com).

Performance is increasing as well. Terry Manning, vice president of sales and marketing at Zoom Telephonics Inc. (www.zoom.com), a wireless modem and wireless LAN maker, says his company’s products currently operate at a throughput of 2 MBps, but Zoom will be offering an 11 MB solution next month.

"Pricing really is going to get to a level where it’s as cost-effective or more so than wired environments," he says.

Security, often considered a disadvantage, is actually not much more of a threat than wired computing, says Sierra Wireless’ Morris.

The CDPD network, for instance, was developed with financial companies in mind, so the data is encrypted. Once that data returns to land lines, the packets find their way back to the corporate network via the same route as a dial-up connection.

Although frustrated that the technology is not yet in its prime, Xerox’s Casey says it is invaluable to the employees he supports.

"If I had it my way, everyone of my staff would have a wireless modem," he says.

Another advantage is more constant communications.

Harold Mann, president of Web design firm Mann Consulting Inc. (www.mannconsulting.com), uses a wireless modem to connect his notebook back to the corporate network. Mann Consulting has offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the company president is often meeting with clients.

Mann says he keeps on top of important messages by responding to e-mail during five-minute breaks from meetings -- something he says he could not effectively do without wireless technology.

"If I get one important e-mail because of receiving it wirelessly that I otherwise would not, that can easily make up for the cost of the modem and service," he says.

Microsoft has begun implementing wireless technology into several of its 40-plus buildings on its Redmond, Wash., campus. A Microsoft employee says wireless access is so popular with some colleagues, they actually factor whether or not a building has wireless in place when contemplating a new job that requires switching buildings.

As more workers gain real-time wireless access to their business applications analysts expect more benefits to emerge.

Adoption

Steve Shivers, general manager of the wireless and information appliances group at InfoSpace.com Inc. (www.infospace.com) says that as the market matures there will be distinct differences between consumers and business users.

"The consumer side is going to be huge, but the corporate space is where we’ll see substantial productivity gains," he says.

Shivers believes that seemingly minute advantages, such as being able to remotely pull up a co-worker’s calendar to schedule a meeting involving a customer you are with, will be huge factors in productivity.

Shivers sees three clear phases in which wireless providers will offer services tailored for enterprise users. The first phase, currently in development, is the creation of commercial services and content.

Phase two is the availability of more complex and effective commerce applications. This will include the ability to comparison shop for products, among consumers or business-to-business. For example, a user who finds a CD at Tower Records' Web site will be able to use the UPC symbol to find out how much the CD costs at other online music sites.

The third phase is the establishment of vertical and enterprise-specific portals. The key driving force in this phase will be the applications and the devices. As more applications gain wireless capability, corporations will begin to use them in that manner.

"If there is a phase four, it will be around broadband services, such as streaming video," Shivers says. "Where it’s all headed, every device will be an IP device. That’s probably about five years out."

Anywhere Access

Regardless of the developmental path wireless takes, one thing is certain: There will be a variety of wireless devices from which users can access the Internet and the corporate network.

According to IDC (www.idc.com) , the number U.S. wireless device users with access to inbound and outbound information services and Internet messaging will increase by 728 percent from 7.4 million in 1999 to 61.5 million by 2003.

In another report, IDC says 70 percent of handheld users employ the systems for business purposes.

"It is easy to envision a time in the next few years when the majority of Internet access could be through wireless and not wired means," says Iain Gillott, vice president and telecommunications analyst at IDC.

The AvantGo.com service from AvantGo Inc. (www.avantgo.com) for instance, enables users to wirelessly access content from the Web sites of the New York Times, USA Today, and others via handheld devices, such as the Palm or Windows CE systems.

Now, they're not exactly the same as the Web pages that load on a notebook or desktop. The pages are tailored, or slimed-down, to accommodate devices with less bandwidth.

Rick Bilodeau, director of product marketing at 3Com Corp.’s (www.3com.com) wireless products group, says the use of wireless technology with notebooks is lagging behind the use of wireless handhelds.

"Mass market use of wireless with laptops is still to come," he says. "It’s a market waiting for the speed, and people won’t settle for dummied-down applications on laptops."

Bilodeau says that the performance needed for notebooks is coming soon. The Bluetooth specification (see sidebar) is designed with that aim. The standard is ratified, and products are being developed.

While mobile devices play a major role in driving wireless computing, Bilodeau also points out that companies are starting to reap the productivity rewards of having in-building wireless access to the corporate LAN. 3Com’s wireless LANs and WANs, in fact, are popping up in conference rooms, public areas, lobbies, and branch offices. Companies are opting for wireless access points where LAN connections are not established.

John Prial, director of marketing for IBM pervasive computing at IBM, says hardware standards, for both PCs and handheld devices, will bring wireless technologies to fruition.

"As wireless becomes based on standard hardware and standard protocols, it becomes much cheaper and easier for companies to deploy," he explains.

On the Way

Wireless is making its way into the enterprise, albeit slowly.

"It’s a classic case where it will take some time in the broad enterprise sense before corporations start widespread deployment," says Pat McVeigh, chairman and CEO of wireless modem manufacturer OmniSky Inc. (www.omnisky.com).

But corporate deployment is beginning. Metricom’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, John Wernke, says 40 percent of Metricom’s customer base is made up of corporate users.

"We’ve worked to steer our model to meet the needs of mobile professionals because we see the corporate space as the direction where the most growth will occur," he says.

Xerox’s Casey says there are undeniable advantages to wireless that will cause corporations to adopt it.

"There’s an extreme convenience -- one that just cannot be defined until you actually use it -- to being able to take your laptop out and use it in the front seat of your car without having to find a phone line," he says.

That doesn’t apply while driving, of course.

[Sidebar] The Bluest Tooth

The Bluetooth specification for wireless technology is designed to free devices from wires. It is a specification for a small form-factor, low-cost radio solution providing links between mobile computers, mobile phones, and other portable handheld devices, and connectivity to the Internet.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) (www.bluetooth.com) -- composed of leaders in the telecommunications, computing, and network industries -- is driving development of the technology and bringing it to market. The Bluetooth SIG includes promoter companies 3Com Corp. (www.3com.com), Ericsson Communications Inc. (www.ericsson.com), IBM Corp. (www.ibm.com), Intel Corp. (www.intel.com), Lucent Technologies Inc. (www.lucent.com), Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com), Motorola Inc. (www.motorola.com), Nokia Group Inc. (www.nokia.com), Toshiba America Inc. (www.toshiba.com), and more than 1,300 adopter companies

Joyce Putscher, director of consumer and convergence markets at Cahners In-Stat Group Inc. (www.instat.com), says the markets that will take off in the first Bluetooth wave will primarily be high-end cellular and PCS handsets and notebook PCs. These are geared toward the corporate market or business user, primarily due to cost issues.

"In terms of applications, there is a lot Bluetooth can do," says Rick Bilodeau, director of product marketing at 3Com Corp.’s (www.3com.com) wireless products group.

Bluetooth will really begin to sink its teeth into the market in 2001. By 2005, the market opportunity for radio and baseband solutions will surpass $3 billion, according to Cahners In-Stat.

"When you look out five years, it’s definitely a pervasive technology that will be widely used," Bilodeau says. "In the meantime, we’ll start to see Bluetooth products this summer. Lots of vendors are at work on this." As more chip solutions become Bluetooth certified, shipments will pick up during the first half of this year, to be included in equipment for the second half.