Watching Wireless

Last week, I watched a hapless marketing executive struggle through a keynote speech that relied on a series of demonstrations of new wireless gadgets and technologies. While thousands of techies looked on hopefully, the poor guy proved my new theory that the scope of a demo failure is directly proportional to the size of the audience. And it was one huge crowd.

Painful as it was to witness, this demo disaster served up a sobering reminder that much of the hype around wireless these days is still just that. All the vendor hoopla in the world won't mask the immaturity and downright flukey nature of many of these technologies. One of our editors attended a wireless conference last week and was startled when only a few dozen people showed up to talk about "mobile commerce." As much as we'd love to write about them, business case studies of successful wireless rollouts are still relatively rare.

If I had to pick a poster child for leading-edge use of wireless today, it would be United Parcel Service of America Inc. with its recent move to shipment tracking via almost any wireless device. Not a very jazzy application, really. But as a UPS official put it, "Wireless is in its infancy, and we're watching to see how fast it will catch on." Supposedly by 2002, every new mobile device sold will have Internet access. Also on the way are dozens of new services - stuff we never knew we always wanted - that will be piped directly into those gadgets. Already, there are about 400 million wireless devices loose in the world, when you count everything from handheld computers, PDAs and cell phones to two-way pagers.

So what's keeping businesses from embracing wireless? For starters, an array of contradictory standards and competing protocols makes it difficult for corporate developers to figure out where to start. Before it even reaches that device in your hand, wireless content has to run a gamut of technologies, including a wireless application server, a particular markup language, a gateway server and a set of specific network protocols. Assuming that all that works (it often doesn't) and that bandwidth issues aren't a problem (they usually are), there are information security and privacy issues galore for corporate IT to worry about.

Yet despite all these obstacles, a world without wires is clearly coming our way. How to get ready? Keep the pressure on your vendors to agree on standards. Insist on straight answers to security and privacy concerns. And if you're really a glutton for punishment, you can always ask to see a demo.

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact her at maryfran_johnson@computerworld.com.

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