Bracing for the Boom

Wireless Web technology appears to be catching on, at least on Wall Street if not yet in the rest of the business world. The Global Markets Division of The Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, for example, implemented Global Market Pro, developed by wireless application service provider Datalink.net in San Jose.

"It cuts the time I spend using my handheld by 30 percent," says Glen Havlicek, managing director of domestic treasury at Chase Global Markets.

Global Market Pro operates on a wide range of equipment, such as two-way pagers, Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd.'s (RIM) 950 wireless handhelds, Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc.'s Palm VII. The service offers real-time financial data from information sources like Reuters Ltd. and Market News International Inc. The data is captured by Datalink, relayed to Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp. over a landline and transmitted wirelessly throughout the country. According to Havlicek, customization is a simple matter of logging on to a Datalink-hosted personal site to specify content and format.

Unique Problems

While the Chase system is among the pacesetters in the financial sector, it doesn't yet contain the element that elicits terror in some quarters: wireless accessing of corporate networks on a massive scale. With that comes a unique package of problems such as Web page formatting for small screens, the establishment of virtual private networks (VPN) and, of course, security.

Analysts predict that by 2003, more people will be accessing the Web from wireless and handheld devices than from conventional PCs. International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, Mass., for instance, predicts there will be 720 million mobile Internet subscribers, compared with 525 million wired users by that time.

"Those who treat the arrival of wireless access to the Internet as just another terminal device and protocol to worry about will find themselves as far behind as those that thought the Internet was not relevant to their industry or community," says Simon Hayward, research director at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

But other than the financial services sector, few industries have been paying attention to these forecasts. A survey conducted by Boston-based AMR Research Inc. reveals that 69 percent of manufacturing firms allocated no funds for wireless this year. Five percent said they plan to spend on wireless next year, and 8 percent plan to in 2002. The numbers are only marginally better in industries such as retail, telecommunications and health care.

What's holding companies back from the wireless bandwagon? The answer is complex and has to do with worries about security, speed and the maturity of the technology.

Just like in the early days of e-commerce, confidence in security procedures seems to be missing. If you're thinking about opening your network to widespread access via wireless, you'd better be sure it's fully secure, says Patrick Wise, vice president of e-commerce at Landstar System Inc., a transportation services provider in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Anything radio-based has as big a security hole as regular broadcasting," says Tom Lyon, chief technology officer at Mountain View, Calif.-based Nokia Internet Communications. However, he points out, most cell phones have authentication that's superior to that of PCs. In addition to log-in, password and encryption elements, factors such as billing requirements, smart cards and Wireless Identity Modules (the use of digital certificates and private keys to authenticate identity) make it possible to erect a security perimeter. But, he says, security is harder to manage when Internet content is involved.

WAP, for example, is fast becoming the industry standard for delivering Internet- and intranet-based information to wireless devices. However, it has a potential security hole at the gateway server. While the next iteration of WAP is expected to resolve this, firewalls had better be stronger than ever when interacting with thousands of mobile users on a corporate VPN or, worse, when millions of consumers can contact the site wirelessly.

Landstar didn't seriously address security issues during its WAP phone pilot. By dialing into an Internet service provider, 35 remote drivers were able to access confidential load pickup information residing on the company's Compaq Computer Corp. Proliant server running Windows NT and Nokia WAP server software. Things have changed, however, now that wireless is being exported throughout the company.

"We need to make the application fully secure before rolling it out to all 7,100 drivers," says Wise. On top of passwords and log-in identifications, the company is using firewall and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology to safeguard proprietary data.

Pump Up the Volume

But security is one thing and speed quite another. American Medical Response Inc. (AMR) in Aurora, Colo., is the nation's largest private provider of medical transportation. Operating in 36 states, AMR employs more than 20,875 people in 265 operating sites and transports more than 4 million people per year in more than 4,000 vehicles. To smooth the patient transition from ambulance to care facility, AMR is using Palm VIIs to record critical patient information while a vehicle is in transit.

"When the ambulance arrives at the hospital, the patient data is already entered into the handheld," says Tony Fernandez, an operations analyst specialist at AMR. The Palm is immediately synchronized on a cradle at the front desk, saving time on paperwork.

But with so many people under its care and with time being a life-or-death proposition for some, AMR is looking to wireless to further speed the process. According to Fernandez, the company has started to build a wireless infrastructure. By spring, data gathered in the ambulance will be relayed wirelessly while en route to the hospital. That way, the front desk will have gone through all the red tape and the patient can be taken directly to a physician.

The volume of traffic envisioned at AMR is unlikely to severely test current wireless security capabilities. (SSL can handle up to 50 connections per second, according to Lyon.) But what do you do when that rate is exceeded? Lyon says he believes IP clustering - maintaining a single IP address that's clustered over many boxes - may be the solution. "With potential wireless loads, there is no one piece of hardware that can handle everything," he says.

Another potential bottleneck that many fail to take into account is landline bandwidth. Remote users communicate wirelessly only with the nearest phone company transceiver. From there, wires bring the data to corporate or hosted servers. Thus, the size of the pipe has to be more than adequate.

"If you are running at 60 percent on a T1 or T3 currently and intending to broadly implement wireless, plan ahead for more bandwidth," says Ray Collins, systems integration manager at Santa Ana, Calif.-based Alpha Microsystems. His company developed Field Access, a wireless middleware application for 110 field engineers deployed remotely repairing desktops and providing network support. They access custom data via Palm VIIs and wirelessly receive and transmit alerts and updates. Collins says return-on-investment realization took four months.

Wireless users connect via BellSouth to a secure Windows NT-based intranet/extranet at the Alpha Microsystems facility that operates over Web-enabled devices such as RIM pagers, Nextel Communications Inc. text phones, Palm devices and some Windows CE devices. "It's very important to make wireless applications hardware-independent," says Collins. Based on user feedback, having forms served up at the server end rather than by the devices themselves is making clients much thinner than before.

Alpha Microsystems made this switch due to the speed ceiling on wireless transmissions. Field Access, like most of the current wireless crop, runs at only 9,600 bit/sec. But according to mobile vendors, 144K bit/sec. is right around the corner. Until then, it's essential to minimize content by keeping replies brief and forms stripped-down, says Collins. And until proven technology exists to convert any Web page and serve it to a small screen, companies will have to generate content specifically for wireless users.

"People think you can just ‘reformat' existing applications for small devices. This is a fallacy," says Jacob Christfort, chief technology officer at OracleMobile Inc., a wireless application service provider in Redwood Shores, Calif. "You need to think about the unique mobile situation and create truly mobile applications that make sense for your company and will justify the investment."

Coverage

But for all the worries over security, speed and the maturity of technology, some say only one barrier remains. "The limiting factor in wireless is coverage," says Wise. "It's only available in certain metropolitan areas." The last thing his company needs is for drivers to miss business opportunities if they're outside the range of wireless networks, he says.

Collins says he's also concerned about the lack of universal wireless coverage. "Applications need to be able to function when they are outside of normal range," he says. "Devices should be able to seamlessly capture data and feed it into the system as soon as you get back into a covered area."

Cellular companies are urgently addressing the coverage question, and they're gearing up for the boom. According to Iain Gilott, IDC's vice president of worldwide consumer and small-business telecommunications, new shipments of all digital handsets worldwide will be WAP-capable by next year. The big players can't afford to miss the market opportunity represented by mobile Internet access, he says.

Lyon says he's convinced that it won't be long before the business world wakes up to wireless. He recalls early cell phone woes such as billing fraud and roaming charges. "Mobile didn't work until these issues were resolved," he says. "But as soon as people realize how advanced wireless really is in terms of security and scalability, the mad rush will begin."

Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer specializing in technology issues.

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