Wireless Technologies

The Trendline

Don't bother telling your users about the wonders of wireless technologies. Let them tell you. Hear them describe the joys of information independence -- the exhilarating freedom of being able to access any information anywhere through the modem-free miracle of PDAs, pagers and cell phones. And then don't even think about telling these users that IS can't support their wireless devices. That's no longer an option.

The Promise

Wireless technologies guarantee that no conscientious worker will ever escape work completely. Not with cell phones that let conference calls carry over into the commute, not with pagers and PDAs that keep e-mail and Web access within arm's reach. User resistance? Forget it! Meta Group says that by 2003, half of all businesspeople will use three to four wireless data devices. Gartner Group predicts that by 2005, wireless technologies will attract 1 billion users worldwide. "The heartbeat of the business enterprise has become 'how quickly can you get back to a client's e-mail or voice mail?'" says Gartner Senior Analyst Phillip Redman. "And that heartbeat is only going to get faster."

The Pitfalls

There are several good reasons to doubt whether wireless can attain quick ubiquity, despite its steep growth curve:

Health Concerns Is there really a link between cell phone use and cancer? It's an issue being decided not just by the medical community, but in the courts as well. A Maryland doctor recently filed an $800 million lawsuit against Motorola and eight other telecommunications companies and groups, charging that his cell phone use caused a malignant brain tumor. Suits such as this one could put a lot of corporate wireless strategies on hold until the issues are settled.

Regulatory Issues Airlines already limit use of wireless devices on aircrafts. Will roadway bans be next? Some U.S. counties have banned outright the use of cell phones while driving, and three states -- California, Florida and Massachusetts -- limit the use of cell phones in moving vehicles (such as requiring the use of hands-free speaker and microphone systems). Whether such restrictions will gain further momentum is anyone's guess, but the threat could inhibit companies that are rolling out wireless devices.

Growing Pains Unlike Europe and Asia, where wireless coverage is nearly ubiquitous, the United States still has geographic areas where wireless devices are useless. The best wireless service providers don't even reach 70 percent of the United States today. Redman says he doesn't expect that situation to improve anytime soon. Between now and 2005, Redman sees wireless vendors improving their current networks to meet increased demand, but not expanding networks to reach new markets in more remote locations. The other harsh reality for CIOs is integration. To be effective, wireless devices must be integrated with traditional networks and databases, which calls for a whole new set of IT skills and tools. And then there are the security issues, which companies are only starting to deal with today.

Still, even if wireless isn't quite ready for prime time, it's the wise CIO who makes the technology a key component of the strategic plan. "CIOs need to start planning for wireless," Redman says. "Those who wait will be left behind."

The Prediction

The world is going wireless -- regardless of the health concerns. These solutions will be expensive, and some of them won't work. But the risk of trying and failing is a lot less costly than the risk of doing nothing at all.

This story, "Wireless Technologies" was originally published by CIO.

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