Widen Wireless Highway Before Adding Gadgets

FRAMINGHAM (07/24/2000) - With its recent announcement introducing wireless messaging middleware, IBM Corp. is joining other vendors in proclaiming that it's time for mobile workers to connect to corporate back offices while in transit. Enabling mobile workers to use wireless Internet access from cell phones, PDAs and even pagers to reach databases and applications sounds fine, until a closer examination shows some major problems that no piece of middleware will cure.

Start with easy problems, like data entry. Handheld devices come with either alphanumeric keyboards small enough to prove uncomfortable for elves or standard phone keypads that force users to push buttons multiple times to get the letter or number of choice. The result is wasted time - and employees who will ignore inconvenient technology.

Next is the nature of the user interface. Sure, there's a browser on the device - a tiny one. Web sites are finding that wireless Internet technology needs its own set of pages and approaches, including low use of graphics, limited functions and constrained options. In other words, corporations can plan on paying for development, maintenance and page management for both wired and wireless sites.

But the biggest issue, reliability, is out of the IT department's hands. Ever try to complete a conversation on a cell phone, even in a major metropolitan area? If voice connectivity is flaky, will the phone's built-in browser work any better? All these hurdles could be managed, but the chances of the last one being cleared are unlikely. Oh, voice and paging systems can be reliable: Ask anyone who has used wireless communications in Europe or Asia, where there is a stronger commitment to service. U.S. telecommunications carriers, though, seem more interested in the easy solution.

A communications consultant once mentioned to me how a Japanese firm planned a cellular system in Tokyo. The company had its own engineers and also brought in U.S. consultants from one of the biggest names in cellular technology. After due consideration, the consultants said the company needed about a dozen antennae in the city. Staff engineers had a slightly higher estimate, falling somewhere between 200 and 300. The Japanese company went with the more thorough implementation, and the consultants again demonstrated the penny-wise and pound-foolish attitude that is always satisfied with the cheapest solution.

Yes, profits are nice and necessary, but what good are they if services don't work? Instead of constantly trying to build out new features to push more gadgets and monthly corporate revenues, U.S. telecommunications companies should improve service so that it's really useful. The only way for that to happen is for all of us who accept second-rate treatment to start speaking up.

Let's insist that vendors stop introducing even more traffic onto the wireless highway, at least until it has been expanded from a two-lane dirt road.

Erik Sherman is a writer in Marshfield, Mass., who regularly covers technology and business issues. Contact him at