Freedom to Roam

By - cin.earthweb.com Staff

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by Eva Marer

"Do you have a Palm?" asked the marketer hopefully, eager to demonstrate the new thin client software touted on the colorful banner behind him.

"How 'bout a cell phone?" asked one intrepid Web broadcaster, snapping open his Motorola TalkAbout. The marketer looked stricken, but quickly recovered. Putting his best foot forward, he aimed the miniature display of his own PalmVII at the throng. A couple of techies lingered, but most of the Web producers, trade reporters, and assorted industry geeks gathered at the New York New Media Association's monthly cyber-event shrugged and headed inside, where the guarantee of free food and booze seemed to outweigh the uncertain promise of the tiny screen.

The marketer's dilemma — the pressure to sell applications to a market in which no single form factor or standard exists — neatly sums up the state of the wireless industry today. "A lot of companies are promoting wireless B2B applications they don't even have in beta yet," says David Bilotti, senior marketing communications director at Wireless Knowledge LLC in San Diego, a two-year-old joint venture between Microsoft and Qualcomm Inc. As a result, he says, the products being offered may not work, let alone be available when promised.

Smart technology executives are taking a wait-and-see approach as operating systems and devices become more sophisticated on a global scale. In the meantime, they're scouting out trends, analyzing needs, and judiciously tweaking corporate infrastructure as they wait for the sure winners that would justify their increased expense.

Sitting on the Fence

"I don't think that any executive could say with certainty which platform is strong enough to allow big investments yet," says Franck Sidon, an executive director with Goldman Sachs, in London. Today, most corporate rollouts are tactical, he says, providing e-mail access for example, but not yet fully supporting the mobilized strategic deployment of the virtual company.

Yes, wireless offers the freedom to roam, albeit within a limited area, says Colin Auld, the IT facilities manager at Alenia Marconi Systems in Edinburgh. His division simulates, for training purposes, a complete nuclear power station, aircraft, ship, or train right down to small maintenance trainers. The fidelity of these systems depends on hairline accuracy, from engineering design to scenario generation to procedure — and that means full deployment won't be possible until security and data synchronization can be assured.

In some cases, user demand is not significant enough to warrant large investments. "Our marketplace just isn't ready for it yet," says Uday Shankar, chief technology officer at New York-based The Equavant Group, an online marketplace designed to centralize the trading of bank loans for Wall Street traders and other market makers. His company, which deals in sensitive financial information and information-rich content, faces two major challenges: security, which is less advanced on wireless than on PC-centric platforms, and the daunting task of translating the typical Wall Street war room — a bank of trading screens and newswires — onto a 1-inch cell-phone monitor or other handheld device.

It's only a matter of time before pervasive computing goes mainstream, admits Shankar, who envisions a day when traders will actually leave their desks and go to lunch, confident at least that they won't miss a bidding call. To that end, his backend technology is WAP-compatible, and his team is working on conveying key bits of information to fit miniature screens. Yet Shankar speaks for many IT execs when he says that his CEO is frankly not overly concerned about wireless. "We're not selling $30 toasters," he jokes.

Sometimes, IT executives find themselves at odds with CEOs about how best to achieve goals within budget. "The IT executive is trying to build a consistent, reliable, and unfortunately expensive infrastructure for the organization, while the business executive turns up with a new palmtop device costing a few hundred pounds and wants it to plug into his mobile phone," says Auld. The challenge for technologists, he says, is how to meet ideal executive goals without upsetting the legacy systems that are keeping the business operational.

Even at high-tech companies, senior managers and road warriors mainly use wide-area wireless technology (e.g., the wireless application protocol) to pick up e-mail and the occasional file, says Auld. Companies like his will be on the forefront of setting trends and standards. For mainstream companies, the wireless industry is still in its infancy, meriting dedicated research, but not yet full-scale strategic investments.

Follow the Money

While wireless technology remains an uncertain investment for most mainstream companies, the opposite is true in the venture capital space, where the drive toward pervasive computing is in full throttle.

Venture investments are migrating away from tech start-ups and toward late-stage funding of aggregated technologies, according to Udayan Gupta, a former senior writer for the Wall Street Journal and author of the recent book, Done Deals: Venture Capitalists Tell Their Stories. Wireless is the ideal venture investment, he says, because it is mature and cash-hungry enough to sop up the $10 million to 20 million most venture capitalists are looking to spend.

"If you have $1 billion to invest, $100,000 invested in a start-up is a rounding error," says Gupta, who recently founded a multimedia news and information Web site for entrepreneurs. "Wireless is almost less risky and a great way to make the aggregation play," he says.

The full-scale drive of venture capitalists into the wireless arena is actually good news for CIOs. Yes, it means more confusion in the short term — more new technologies, applications, vendors, partnerships, and, of course, more marketing hype. But it also means that IT execs can afford to sit on the sidelines for another year or so while keeping an eye on what the big boys are doing.

Some top-tier venture capital firms to watch, according to Gupta, are Charles River Ventures and Patnacoff & Associates on the East Coast and the big five on the West Coast: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Mayfield Fund, Accel Partners, Matrix Partners, and Sequoia Capital.

These firms are seeking to leverage synergies in telecommunications and its extensions — "compunications," as it used to be called in the 1980s, says Gupta with a laugh, when people were experimenting with new words to express the new worlds of technology they were inhabiting. That same kind of energy and experimentation is alive today.

In addition to following the venture capital firms, technologists should take a close look at how industry leaders are spending their research dollars. For example, Nokia Research Center, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Co., among others, are supporting MIT's Oxygen project, which aims to make computing "as pervasive, free, and natural as air."

IT executives who follow the money will be in the best position to predict which software and applications will win out over others, and a wireless future will play out in their own highly specific business environments.

Wireless and the Winds of Change

The idea of one global device and standard is "nice," says Auld, but it will never happen in the IT area, where systems constantly change in the march of progress. "Businesses are always pushing for competitive advantage and increased functionality," he says.

With platforms still immature, the short-term issues are more on the infrastructure side than on the application side, writes Jack Gold, author of the META Group report, "Pervasive Ergonomics 101." He predicts that the number of devices (Palm, PC, WAP phones, screen phones) will only increase in the near term. Consequently, companies will have to deploy multimodal interfaces, including full browser, microbrowser, WAP browser, voice command, and text-to-speech.

Contrary to some reports, WAP is not dead, Gold insists, but "in distress." That's because its key component, Wireless Markup Language (WML), is an interim technology suitable for underpowered, "memory-poor" devices that will soon be replaced by devices with greater processing power and more memory. Within the next couple of years, he writes, microbrowsers such as Microsoft Mobile Explorer and Opera, with full HTML and JavaScript compatibility, will come online.

Wireless technologies are just another platform that IT needs to provide tools and applications for, says Sidon, who points out that many executives are waiting for PalmOS, Windows CE, or Symbian to establish itself as the dominant platform. Meanwhile, Gold predicts that companion devices will contain multiple embedded operating systems on various chips from a growing list of companion and appliance manufacturers.

From a business perspective, Sidon says, companies are looking for "always-on" connectivity at decent prices, something that cell phone users take for granted and are beginning to realize that they need for data as well. "This is especially true in Europe where a lot more people cross countries for their work than in the U.S. or Japan," says Sidon, who has worked in both the United States and Europe and spent more than seven years in Asia. He points out that the early successes in the United States and Japan have been because of the availability of data networks, such as iMode and Blackberry.

Nevertheless, says Auld, as global markets cause standards to converge, the United States and Europe will come more into line with one another. "The most-used third-generation standards will be W-CDMA wide area and TD-CDMA for local area," says Auld, pointing out that more than half the cellular phones in the world operate according to the AMPS standard, which since 1988 has been maintained and developed by the Telecommunications Industry Association. He also notes that people tend to mutter about BlueTooth for the local area while ignoring other decent products such as ONEcom Windcast.

Don't forget that infrastructure issues are complicated by on-the-ground reality, Auld advises. He ticks off the issues for one of his company's clients, a foundry: "Because of the fire risk, the buildings were fabricated in metal, which is rather impervious to radio waves. The air was full of graphite, so even the screens and keyboards needed constant cleaning. Then there was the constant electrical noise from the melting furnaces and the welding apparatus." Heavy industries, he says, will have to manage much more than problems of bandwidth, limited portable power supply, and cost.

Toward the Virtual Company

In the medium term, a great shakeout is likely to happen in the area of software development, where the seeds planted by venture capitalists and their partners will begin to bear fruit, and losers will retreat.

In fact, that's already happening. Many companies are taking the intermediate step of moving applications online. And for some providers, especially in the healthcare and consumer finance areas, wireless access already makes good sense. Some brokerages allow consumers to make wireless trades. Hospitals are leveraging the power of wireless for bedside uses, allowing doctors to chart each patient's progress as they make their rounds. Bilotti describes how one of his company's clients, a healthcare company, enables its diabetic consumers to post their blood sugar readings to the Web throughout the day, using a cell phone. The results are stored on the Web and monitored by personal physicians.

While no one can predict which wireless functionalities users will eventually want, winning applications will share certain characteristics. For one thing, says Auld, they will be heuristic, or adaptable to their operating environments. "Take an application involving work flow," he says. "Suppose that someone in the group is suddenly taken ill. Unless there is supervisory human intervention to change the work flow, a logjam would result, affecting all downstream work." Heuristic software would detect this imbalance in the load, he says, and knowing the type and quality of the resources available, retune the system to allow for this change. Thus, heuristic software does not merely perform a static function, but also tunes to its environment to optimize functionality.

In addition, says Auld, winning wireless software would adapt well to matrix organizations, in which individual employees fulfill a variety of roles within their area of expertise. In such cases, employees may report to a number of different managers and are constantly inputting to projects at various stages of development, and even at different sites.

In the area of enterprise application development, business logic is moving away from the client and out of backend servers. This trend supports advances in the midtier, and CIOs, especially in retail or e-businesses sectors, should expect growth in intelligent wireless devices and the thin client.

As customer relationship management becomes more sophisticated, and the application of pervasive computing devices more far-reaching, writes Gold, specialization beyond what we have experienced already is inevitable. Companies will have to make the transition from focusing on hardware standards, he writes, to focusing on interface standards and personalization technologies.

The final frontier is "evolutionary," says Sidon, in the form of bigger screens, smaller-sized devices, and other ergonomic factors that will make wireless computing more comfortable for the user. The endgame: a communication path between every worker no matter where they are located.

"The time will come when we rely not just on wireless but on connectionless intelligent communication between most personal computing devices," says Auld. When not only data, but also voice and video have been integrated, companies will have met the ultimate challenge: the generation of the virtual company.