Prepare for the mobile scramble

Anywhere, anytime, everywhere, all the time. That might as well be the mantra for the coming decade.

I'm talking about mobile access to your company's systems from phones, Palm units and, perhaps someday, automobiles and wearable computers.

The forecast goes like this: by the end of the year, almost 25 per cent of Internet users in Europe and more than 60 per cent in Japan, where wireless is catching on fastest, will be using a wireless connection at least some of the time. Mobile Internet access will catch on slower in the US, but by this time next year, the country is expected to boast nearly 20 million wireless Internet users. Within four years, 60 per cent of all Internet users will be mobile some of the time.

Yet research from International Data Corp's massive eWorld 2001 survey (www.idc.com/eworld2001) indicates that most companies consider supporting wireless devices something that will be needed in the distant future. Fewer than 10 per cent of sites today support mobile devices, even in Europe and Japan. Fewer than 20 per cent plan to add support soon.

In short, demand will soon greatly outstrip the supply of mobile Internet access and applications.

Here's what I think will happen: about a year from now, companies will wake up to the imperative to support mobile Internet users with remote access for wireless, content formatted for new form factors and new applications and services for their customers and they'll all try to move at the same time. I call this the mobile scramble. There will be a lot of lousy implementations, a lot of consulting dollars wasted and a lot of unhappy users, at least until companies upgrade and improve their first efforts.

I'm not saying you have to implement futuristic applications like the imaginary service that calls you to tell you your latte is ready, but your employees are going to want e-mail and instant messaging from their wireless phones and access to intranets and extranets. Your customers are going to want to cheque account status on the road, and your sales force is going to want inventory status. Basic bread-and-butter stuff.

Here's how to get ahead of the scramble:

- Get up to speed on what it will take to support wireless with your internal and external Web sites. Have a plan in place for when the powers that be suddenly make this your top priority.

- Find out which vendors offer what wireless Web site hosting and application development services. At least 75 per cent of companies will outsource some or all of their mobile Web sites.

- Set up a technology evaluation unit to keep track of the various standards, devices and services available. Remember, they'll vary by region.

- Start educating business units and management on the unique problems and opportunities created by wireless applications. You know the list: security, device and user management, technical support, directories, and the like.

But mostly, you'll have to fight complacency. I don't think demand for wireless applications will evolve steadily. One day, no one will care about them; the next, everyone will clamour for them.

That switch will be thrown sometime around September 2002, when we hit 200 million mobile Internet users worldwide, or about the same number of Internet users in June 1999. You have only 16 months to prepare, so get cracking.

John Gantz is a senior vice president at IDC in Framingham, Mass. Contact him at jgantz@idc.com.

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