A wireless 'humbug'

As everybody eagerly awaits packet-based networks and the always-on wireless connectivity they bring, I thought I'd play Scrooge and talk about the downside.

Truth is, packet-based networks will create a number of new challenges for application developers as well as for companies that want to deploy wireless workflow to the field.

On the protocol level, TCP/IP is traditionally quite chatty as it optimizes the flow of traffic between the network and the desktop. That's fine in a wired, LAN-based client/server architecture, says Greg Nuyens, CTO of Neomar Inc., a mobile ISV in San Francisco.

But what if you are billed for all of that traffic? As brief as it is, it will add new meaning to being nickled and dimed to death. And of course, you have the constant flow of e-mails arriving on your GSM (Global System for Mobile communications)-based Treo, or Nokia 7210, or any other converged device using the cellular voice network rather than the data-only paging network such as CDPD (cellular digital packet data).

If you believe that a flat rate for all the data you can eat will exist in the cellular world, as it does over CDPD, think again. To the carriers, data transfer is the same as voice airtime because it consumes network capacity.

"The number of channels is zero sum. When the carrier adds data, it takes away from their voice capacity," Nuyens points out.

Flat rates will disappear before they even take off. Will your company be willing to pay US$200 or even $300 a month per employee so your field force can get their e-mails?

Want more problems? OK. Nuyens also talks about the notion of a hybrid network, "the appropriate network for the appropriate use."

We will soon start to see, for example, dual add-in cards with both GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and Wi-Fi built in. But most of today's apps were architected to be on a single network.

The challenge here is roaming across the networks and still having seamless access to your personal profile. Also, where in the network should that be managed? It must be upstream in the first place where the networks merge, typically by the carrier. Otherwise, the application programmer will need to worry about handing off the application between, say, Wi-Fi and cellular.

Let me leave you with a nice Scroogelike story about how one company and its executives are shifting the responsibility for the cost of wireless deployment and the ROI away from themselves and onto its employees.

Now, I was sworn to secrecy and can only say it is a large, Canadian insurance company with an ROI committee that reviews any project that is more than $2 million. Canadian dollars, I assume.

When employees at this company come up for their annual review, part of their merit raise depends on how effectively they used wireless and how much the use of their tools have contributed to the bottom line.

And you thought filling out an expense report encouraged creative writing.

(Ephraim Schwartz writes for InfoWorld.)

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