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Reevaluating the Wireless World

Technology doesn't generally come along with the force of a lightening bolt to shock us into action. It sets its roots and grows up naturally. Mobile computing set its roots several years ago, and now the onus is on all of us to get dead serious about wireless in the enterprise.


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everal months ago I sat down to write an editorial for DevX, which I had tentatively titled "Where's My Wireless Killer App?" The premise of this editorial was to be, roughly, that if you were to chart the value of mobile devices and wireless communication—and all the sundry communication tricks that they are capable of performing—to the whole population of knowledge workers, the curve would look something like a skateboard ramp. A little shelf at the top maybe, for the true "road warriors" (of which, I think, there are actually far fewer than is generally believed) and then a great precipitous slope, which would end with a long, nearly flat smooth line where the rest of us mostly-connected-but-occasionally-not workers lay.

Taken as a whole, I had thought, mobile communication was exceedingly valuable only to an elite group of end users. For the average person, the only true "killer app" was cellular telephone calls. And, I had said, for some of us, even that isn't sufficiently compelling to make us add the baggage of another monthly bill and a beeping burden of buttons on our belts. I had planned to say that for all the opportunity and innovation that wireless was delivering, there was something big still missing, something that would be so clearly transforming in its ability to improve my work productivity, that you'd find me that very evening down at the local Best Buy, pressing my credit card into the palm of a college-aged clerk and bouncing, slightly, on my toes.

I never finished that editorial and now, I must admit, I'm glad I didn't. Not that anything much has changed: I still don't own a wireless device, and the ability to make phone calls from anywhere is still not terribly appealing to me. But over the course of the last two months, I've undergone a change in thinking about wireless and its possibilities in my life.



I Could Get Used to This
Less than a month ago, while attending the Wireless Access, Mobile Business Solutions conference held by Gartner in Los Angeles, I was given two pieces of wireless equipment on a loaner basis: a wireless network card from Symbol Technologies and a Palm Tungsten handheld. At the end of three days the Tungsten was handed over somewhat grudgingly (I had trouble setting up some of my account information, which frustrated me, but I suppose I might have been just fine if I'd bothered to RTFM). The Symbol people, on the other hand, were forced to pry the NIC out of my clenched, trembling fingers at the 11th hour. A mild dose of methadone was administered.

Since then I've thought of at least 10 reasons why I need a wireless network at home, despite the fact that my apartment is small enough that I'm never more than 25 feet from the wired computer on my desk.

The problem in my earlier logic, I discovered, lies in the fact that I was expecting that pivotal moment, that singular, undeniable, cloud-parting, angel-singing epoch in which my very DNA would rewrite itself in order that I might make that new technology my own forevermore. But I was thinking about the whole thing backward. It wasn't that the technology needed to grow to meet my needs—my needs are already defined by the applications that I use every day on my wired computers—it's that I needed to see how I could do all the same things I always do in ways that were more convenient to me.

For most people, new technology doesn't just come along and shock them into action like a lightening bolt. And I'm hardly an exception. But that doesn't mean that new technologies aren't slowly, ploddingly worming their way deeper and deeper into my soul. Three years ago I had no interest in using an electronic calendar. 'I like my paper calendar,' I'd say, leaning over to take an intoxicating whiff of the leather-and-pulp smell of my day planner. There was no moment at which I decided I didn't like my paper calendar, yet somehow I just stopped using it. And now I'd forget my own mother's funeral if I didn't put in Outlook.

It doesn't smell like leather and paper, but mobile communication will have its charms today for even the most obdurate of analog souls.

And it's that observation, really, which became the starting point for our Wireless Special Report: "Marching Toward Mobility." It doesn't matter what application comes along to incite the passions of what user. It doesn't matter which combination of functions on a single device are the ones that will appeal to any given person. What does matter is that there are hundreds of choices—that hardware vendors are experimenting wildly with feature combinations and form factors, and will continue to do so. That PDA/phone hybrids are new right now, but will soon make serious inroads into the plain-old cell phone marketplace, meaning more users will have more computing power and more opportunities to consume high-function, even mission-critical, applications.

Characteristics of True Adoption
You may think that wireless came to the enterprise long ago, but in reality the uptake has been pretty sad. Many organizations are very tolerant of employees who tinker with their personal devices at work, but very few have reached the point where they meet any of the criteria that I believe indicate true adoption:

  • when the mobile handset is considered a full-fledged network client
  • when the company standardizes on a device platform
  • when the company seeks training for its developers to deal with issues of security and user interface constraints, among others
  • when the IT department seeks wireless as well as wired support requirements for every new application at design time
  • when the IT department commits to support of wireless applications and/or devices and formalizes its support with documentation
  • when end users are trained to use wireless devices as well as how to minimize the inherent security risks
  • when the business side of the organization begins to document and solve legal risks, privacy concerns, and cultural issues that are inherent in wireless use
Looked at from that perspective it's not at all difficult to see why some enterprises have been content—perhaps even eager—to let wireless languish for now. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of change. It's a lot risk. In my opinion, organizations for whom wireless has not yet reached mission-critical status have had a two- or three-year reprieve, which is just about over. End user demand is one kind of pressure, but device capability is creating genuine business opportunities for improving productivity and revenue. And along with more capable devices, we are also seeing more capable development tools. In short, while there's been a lot of talk and a moderate bit of activity (mostly in vertical markets) around wireless to date, the time for wireless to be taken seriously in the enterprise is about to begin in earnest.

The One-Stop Wireless Shop
Two years ago, DevX made its first serious undertaking at covering wireless development with the launch of our Wireless Zone and Wireless Update newsletter. The Wireless Zone has presented some unique editorial challenges. For one, wireless development is not very well isolated from network concerns and advancements; the two are, for now, an intractable pair of concerns (many of which we discussed in our cover story "Heed the Siren Call of Wireless Development"). Second, the large number of competing standards, protocols, and providers makes it extremely difficult to provide a comprehensive, organized framework.

This week is the culmination of two parallel editorial efforts. First, we have undertaken a reorganization of our Wireless Zone to better reflect the wireless marketplace today, to make it easier for you to find information about the many intersecting technologies, and to bring you closer to more sources of technical information.

Here are the highlights of the improved Wireless Zone:

  • The Wireless Tech Library is an entirely new area on DevX and it is unlike anything we've ever done before. The library is a collection of technical content from the vendor community, organized by vendor or platform. If you click on content links from that section you will be directed to the developer area of each vendor's site to read your selection. It is essentially a bit of content aggregation, but the idea is that we want to bring you as many learning opportunities as possible on the Wireless Zone; we can't possibly write every story you want to read.
    It's important that I emphasize that the Wireless Tech Library is NOT advertising. No vendor has paid a fee for inclusion; rather, each vendor that appears there now, or will appear there in the future, has been invited to participate by editorial selection. To be included, the company must be a vendor of products that we believe are useful to a developer and respected in the industry. Second, the vendor must have a sufficient body of developer resources to contribute—that is whitepapers, downloads, and hands-on technical content that are instructional at their core. Today we launch with just a few vendors, but several other invited vendors are expected to add their content to the library in the weeks that follow. It's a new idea for DevX and I'd be eager to hear your thoughts on whether you find it useful.
  • We've reorganized the content on the zone into four sections: Development Tools, Applications, Devices, and Network. On the Development Tools tab you will find resources broken down by major platform, including J2ME, Microsoft, Symbian, and BREW, as well as an area for multiplatform tools and articles that focus on user interface challenges. The Applications tab lets you browse past content by the type of application being developed, whether it's a messaging app, an m-commerce app, a game, etc. The Devices tab lets you filter content that is relevant only to a certain device type. The Network tab is an at-a-glance reference to cellular network protocols (such as CDMA and GSM), Bluetooth, and 802.11.
  • The Wireless Glossary. I don't know if there's any single person who can keep all these protocols straight. That's why we decided to undertake a wireless-specific glossary of terms. We've got about 100 terms in there now and we'll add more as time goes on. It's a work in progress.
Second, we bring you our special report: "Marching Toward Mobility." I've already told you why we wrote decided to do these stories at this time. All that's left is to give you a quick rundown of what's included:

Wireless technology is exciting for everyone, except maybe for the implementers who are stuck unraveling the ugly tangle of new problems. You can start with security, privacy, latency, data loss, and user interface constraints; there are plenty more issues where those came from. The good news is, these are many of the same problems that developers solved a decade ago when the world shifted into Web development. Same questions, different answers. It's not going to be easy, but it is going to be interesting.



   
Lori Piquet can be reached at lpiquet@devx.com.
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