FRAMINGHAM (04/24/2000) - When I speak with companies that are deploying portable wireless devices, their views are consistent: Going wireless is easier than expected, and the payback is large.
If you're holding off on using these products to see which devices triumph in the marketplace, my advice is: Don't. It doesn't matter whether your staff or customers end up using wireless Palms, Windows CE units, browser-equipped mobile phones, the snappy, new voice-activated MiPad (multimodal interactive notepad) technology that Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates recently unveiled or some other gadget. The technology exists to service all these devices simultaneously.
Most of these devices will probably survive, since there's an enormous pent-up market for wireless connectivity.
Look at the soaring popularity of the revolutionary "i-mode" phone introduced in Japan only 14 months ago by NTT DoCoMo (www.nttdocomo.com). The product already serves more than 6 million happy customers, and that number will top 10 million by year's end.
Using packet technology, these svelte phones are constantly connected to the Internet. You don't have to log on to the Web, as you do in North America. The display screen is the size of a business card, and color screens are available.
More than 350 companies have built a vast array of Web sites for the i-mode.
Users can receive e-mail, chat, buy and sell securities, download video or songs, swap photos, read train schedules, look up horoscopes, check movie listings and more. The Japanese are hooked.
Sadly, it will be at least a couple of years before the i-mode's constant connectivity feature is available on phones on this continent. But this is no reason to delay adopting wireless technology, since the capability of wireless devices in North America is already impressive.
SAP AG, for example, is adapting the MySAP.com Web page so that it can be viewed on the screens of Web-browser phones. Each corporate user customizes the screen to make available the information he feels is appropriate - usually time-critical information such as order history and product and pricing information.
So before visiting a customer, a salesman can call up the status of the customer's account on the phone's screen. He can review the most recent orders and see if any deliveries are outstanding. He can even phone his company's loading dock to see what the problem is.
Sure, your salespeople could do the same thing with a laptop plugged into a regular mobile phone, but a mobile phone by itself is a lot cheaper. It costs less to buy, a lot less to maintain and much less to train employees in its use. If the information your field staff needs can be compressed onto a small screen, why pay for anything larger? Although they're still primitive, these devices are already proving their worth.
Don Tapscott is chairman of the Alliance for Converging Technologies (www.actnet.com) and co-author of Digital Capital (Harvard Business School Press, May 2000). Contact him at email@example.com.