Technology: Wireless 2001

By Frank Derfler  |  Posted 05-01-2001

Technology: Wireless 2001

 

Introduction

Chances are that as a CIO, you're thinking a lot these days about two things: security and wireless. Sure, security is a big deal. But wireless? It's still more of a buzzword than something tangible, and you're probably just beginning to ponder the possibilities.

Don't wait too long to start putting together a strategy. Within the next four years, says Houston-based technology researcher eForecaster, 39 percent of Internet users in the U.S. and 68 percent of those in Europe will have wireless Internet access. That's a lot of customers and suppliers to be reached via purse or pocket—and your sales staff is probably already clamoring loudly for you to start building them that kind of reach.

But wireless need not be a new headache for the IT staff. Sure, taking the firm wireless is going to force the sales and technology departments to work together even more closely than ever. And yes, any wireless project or strategy—whether LAN, WAN or otherwise—is going to have to pass serious muster with all of the chief corporate bean counters. That's right: The technology is going to have to work—and it's going to have to pay off, by helping the company either cut costs or boost profits down the line.

My advice? Jump in. Wireless strategies will differ widely from one company to the next, but there are some guidelines everyone can follow, thanks to lessons learned by some of the early adopters.

Lesson One: Wireless doesn't mean doing away with wires. Truth is, wireless is just another service that requires more software running on servers somewhere, more program-to-program communications, more end-user gizmos to buy and support, and more schmoozing with specialized system integrators and carriers.

Lesson Two: Don't expect CIOs and IS managers to take the lead. Demand for wireless access will typically come from the sales staff first. Wireless is, after all, going to be a new way to sell products and to service accounts. Already, some companies are reaping the rewards of their early wireless strategies. Office Depot, for example, is saving a bundle in its order-taking operation by switching from human help to wireless, voice-activated systems. And according to International Data Corp., such m-commerce transactions could reach approximately $20 billion by 2004 in the U.S. alone.

Lesson Three: Start out small. Begin by figuring out a way to let customers check their orders via wireless access to your data. Even if customers or sales people have to place orders by talking to humans, enabling them to check on the status of an order through a cell phone or a PDA can be a high-profile, immediate way to see results. It's also an easy way to start building relationships with your wireless service or software providers. And the CEO and CFO will like it, too, because customers will sit up and take notice. In addition, it's an inexpensive way for you and your company to get experience applying wireless technologies.

Still not convinced? Think cost-savings, in industries ranging from health care to retail and transportation. Consider, for example, a wireless system used by APL, a global container transportation operator, which is a unit of Singapore-based NOL Group. The system lets dispatchers track containers parked throughout its 160-acre Seattle facility. That might not sound like a big deal, but think about this: A trucker picking up a 40-foot container at the APL pier in Seattle waits an average of just 17 minutes from the time he arrives to the time he's ready to hit the road. That's less time than it takes an airline to deliver a bag to a passenger at most airports—and significantly faster than the average pick-up time clocked before the wireless system was installed.

In retail, wireless could boost sales and customer satisfaction. It can make customer hand-holding even cheaper by offering new ways for companies to contact customers—either by voice or a pop-up menu on a PDA. At Wyndham Hotels, for example, a new wireless reservations service that replaces human help is cutting service costs by $5.50 per customer, for a savings in overhead estimated in the millions over the next 18 months. And offering wireless can also add to revenue: Wyndham and other hotel firms are charging extra for the added convenience of their wireless systems. Says Mark Hedley, Wyndham's CTO: "It doesn't take much creativity to cut expenses. You have to use a great amount of creativity to generate revenue."

The Price is Right

The Price is Right

How much will wireless cost? For some, it won't be all that much. You can arrange for services that offer voice and data gateways to simply bill you for the volume access you use. Gateway and connection costs, then, can become recurring budget items that should end up paying for themselves over time. That means most of your investment dollars will probably go into making your applications XML-ready. XML is the lingua franca of the networked economy, and if you don't have it yet, you could be in serious trouble—and in more ways than one. XML is the link to B2B marketplaces, corporate Web sites, electronic payments and many other Net-ready ways to do business. Wireless is just one more reason to get your technologies fluent in XML. If you've already done your XML work, you can leverage that investment with wireless.

Everything Is Negotiable

Everything Is Negotiable

There are other ways that wireless doesn't have to blow the budget. Companies are always hard-pressed to talk about project costs, but off the record they make it clear that everything is negotiable when it comes to wireless. If you run gateway software in your own data center, you're going to have to spend a lot of money paying software licensing and maintenance fees. Instead, you might want to consider outsourcing this from a wireless service provider. Among the firms that rent out such services are NetByTel, Informio, VocalPoint and Voicemate.

More complex wireless projects—involving multiple forms of wireless access—can start at $100,000 per CPU and run to more than $1 million in software licensing and XML link-ups alone. On the other hand, projects that involve voice-only wireless access simply charge you a monthly fee for services.

Overall, besides being cheaper, wireless can be up and running quickly. In many cases, from start to finish, creating wireless access can take just two to six weeks.

Whatever you decide to do, though, keep it simple. A wireless system is like two tin cans connected with invisible string. It's the stuff in the cans on each end of the string that really counts. The string—what it costs to transmit data through the air—can vary, but don't get caught up in all the special deals and fancy plans. Simply treat wireless phone service as a monthly budgeting item, and then forget about it.

Concentrate your brain matter, instead, on the devices you deploy out in the field—and the software you'll need in your data center so those wireless devices can tap into it. These things will make up the bulk of your wireless installation bill: In the field, you've got to plan for and accommodate the portable device's smaller keyboards and displays. Back in the data center, you've got to forge links to existing applications that pre-date the wireless revolution.

If your wireless project requires teaming up with a wireless signal carrier, don't be daunted by the array of wireless companies and the complexity of all the technologies they offer. The popular press loves to speculate over whether whizzy new technologies like 2.5/3G, GSM, TDMA or EDGE will win the most favor. My advice here is to avoid getting caught up in the alphabet soup. Instead, think geography. Choose a carrier that will best serve the places where your people work. Carriers will deploy what they will, where they will and when they will, so you really only have control over which company is the best local provider.

Bottom line? Be careful. Regulatory issues, such as who owns the spectrum, will complicate everything. Also, since carrier deployment plans change with every merger and acquisition, never marry a carrier or a single wireless technology. Use short-term leases and contracts, but don't overcommit. A better deal is bound to be just around the corner.

But you're not out of the woods yet. Here's something else to consider early on: Must your wireless users have information on a screen, or can they get it in spoken form?

Voice Is The Answer

Voice Is The Answer

In my view, voice is the answer. Using a voice interface removes the problems and costs of high bandwidth and integration with portable devices. And the best interface to your applications—any application, for that matter—is through a telephone. Any telephone will do, including a cell phone. Voice is the most natural and least complex way to give and receive information, so why not leverage the obvious?

And it's fast, too. Just ask Office Depot. Its new voice-activated order system was up and running in two weeks. Dial Office Depot's voice-activated order line, and you're forwarded to a voice server in a NetByTel data center. Tap in the customer number from the catalog, and you're connected to Office Depot's inventory database. A voice greets you; the one Office Depot uses is that of a woman with a hint of attitude (if you're slow responding to her queries, she'll say with a slight pique in her voice, "Okay, I'll give you more time…"). NetByTel's system is capable of handling up to 13 languages (Office Depot's service is offered only in English) and doesn't care if you're calling from a GSM phone in Denmark or a time-warped rotary dial somewhere in Romania.

Voice is also the way to go if you've got devices that use menus, or if users will need fast answers about inventory levels, prices, delivery times, client spending and other data nuggets. Until wireless goes video, you're just not going to find a terrific application for small-screen, wireless devices. And as long as most business applications are text-based, there's no reason to try to jam menus into small screens. Standard cell phones calling into voice servers could make many companies wireless without the need to support a variety of handheld devices. The killer app for wireless is still voice.

The next decision you're going to need to make is this: Which wireless devices do you want to put in the field? If your corporate road warriors carry laptops, then your IS staff can load a lot of data into the hard drives. Need one or a dozen updates daily? Windows 2000 has internal synchronization functions that make it easy to update whole sets of files with one mouse click.

Moving at WAP

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Moving at WAP-speed

Finally, you're going to need to know WAP (Wireless Application Protocol). It's a must if you're going to start writing wireless applications. As you probably know by now, the primary technology for wireless is WML (Wireless Markup Language), a display language, and WMLScript, a language derived from JavaScript. The WAP Forum's Web site (www.wapforum.org) is stocked with information and white papers for those who want to delve deeper.

But the fastest way to get WAP-ready is to hire some experts. Companies with names like Brience, Everypath, GadgetSpace, NetMorf and 2Roam are among the early wireless integrators. You can also wire up this way in-house. Many wireless integrators also give you the option of keeping the servers in their facilities, and have you up and running in a matter of weeks.

WAP is powerful, but it can't do everything. Developers are creating ways to selectively push information to WAP-enabled devices. But WAP developers agree on one point: You won't get the best results by asking a WAP gateway to translate a typical media-rich Web site. It's much better to keep it simple for now, and develop specific Web pages for WAP devices. Think in black and white, too, and use limited menus and short text strings—and you'll be well on your way to defining a wireless access system that works.

Other wireless interface standards, such as Short Messaging Service and iMode, could be slightly less appealing for business uses than WAP. Why? SMS is making its way into the U.S. from Japan. It allows users to send text messages to other compatible mobile handsets and other Net-powered devices. Users can compose messages or select from standard messages and create fast yes/no responses to common queries. It's an impressive system, but for now, you're probably better off sticking with WAP. At the moment, iMode is not quite ready for America. At least for now, almost all iMode-compatible devices operate in Japan and use Japanese characters.

Still think wireless might be more of a headache than a help? Remember that nothing is irretrievable or final. You can start out small and simply add capacity as you go. Nothing you do with wireless should preclude anything else. And better still, you can implement voice access at the same time you launch WAP applications—without conflicting with anything, other than, say, your own attention span.

Frank Derfler is a member of Ziff Davis Market Experts, specializing in networking and communications coverage. He has spent 15 years writing for PC Magazine and other publications.

Ten Tips on Going

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Ten Tips on Going Wireless

01. Find the best application to unwire.

Don't force a good fit. Identify the management or sales process that can be helped best by wireless access. Also, don't try to force too much data into a limited channel.

02. Plan security to meet the threat.

Sure, security is important, but it's a bit like insurance. How much you buy is a business decision. Some apps need encryption from the end device to your firewall, but many do not. Don't overdo it.

03. Negotiate everything.

Most wireless service companies are just getting off the ground, and they'll trade revenue for market share, so don't risk a lot of money up front. Pay a fair price at the back end of the process.

04. Include the gateway company in your planning.

You're not going to get a sweet smell from a mushroom. Include the service or software company in your corporate planning sessions, and don't keep them in the dark very long.

05. Let another company host the service.

Running the gateway software in somebody else's data center lets you avoid access hassles. Also, when problems occur, you know where to point the finger.

06. Don't make a move unless you involve the line managers and end-users.

They'll help you to avoid mistakes and justify the budget.

07. Don't lock into a PDA operating system or wireless carrier.

Some offerings will be more appealing than others, but you don't need to standardize at that level. New offerings from Qualcomm and Microsoft are just around the corner, but let your gateway company worry about them.

08. Lock into XML.

Don't wait any longer. Do it or die. If you don't use XML, you won't be effective in e-commerce or wireless.

09. Check out your partners' partners.

For example, if you use Computer Associates' customer relationship management products, then you should probably look at Motorola's WAP gateway products. The companies have a tie-in that can benefit you, and so do others.

10. Plan to upgrade.

The wireless system you install next month is only the first step. As carriers offer more bandwidth and device-makers add more capabilities, you'll want to extend more apps over the wireless link. You're building, not replacing. —F.D.

Case in Point

Case in Point: Room at the Inn
by Mark Kindley

Wyndham hosts the first chainwide wireless hotel reservations system.

Dallas-based Wyndham International is the first hotel chain to have a wireless reservations system, and so far, so good. Not only is the system helping the chain save up to $5.50 per customer in reservation-service costs, it's letting customers get personalized service in a heartbeat. Guests punch their customer ID numbers into the system, and the hotel automatically knows if customers are allergic to foam pillows or prefer an extra blanket.

How did Wyndham do it? Quickly, so far, and without blowing the budget. San Francisco-based Brience Inc., a wireless software and consulting firm, staged a trial for Wyndham in four days—and at a cost that "wouldn't take many customers to justify the expense," says Wyndham CTO Mark Hedley. The system went live in February, just 40 days later.

It helped that Wyndham knew exactly what it wanted going into the project. The system had to meet three business requirements. First, it had to be customer-friendly. Hedley didn't want increased automation to mean a lot less hand-holding for customers. Second, the system had to work off the hotel chain's existing IT architecture. Third, Wyndham's Web site had to remain the same. There would be no rewrite for wireless access. "We wanted our customers to only have to remember Wyndham.com," Hedley says.

Brience met all three specs. Its software "senses" the type of device customers are using to phone in a reservation, then converts its signal to XML, which then "speaks" directly to the hotel's e-commerce back end. Customers don't have to know what type of device they're using, and the system supports most PDAs.

But Hedley isn't stopping there. At Wyndham's Dallas facility, he's testing a check-in service that would let receptionists come out from behind the front desk and check customers in, wherever they may be strolling on the property. "They can meet you in the porte cochere as you are getting out of your car," Hedley says. Soon, guests will be able to check themselves in using their own PDAs. Not a bad way to hot-wire the business of customer service.

Mark Kindley is a veteran business and technology writer who covers the computer and IT industries from Roxbury, Conn.

Resources

Resources

Wireless LANs:

Voice Integration:

Wireless Integration