In some ways, the circus hasn't changed in 100 years: Elephants still lumber around the ring, trapeze artists fly overhead, and clowns tumble out of an impossibly small car.

In other ways, however, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is like any other modern business. When the last show of the day is over, crewmembers head back to their quarters, remove their makeup, plug in their laptops and check for e-mail. Business managers upload the day's ticket sales data and order more advertising if necessary, then download changes to contracts or travel plans from headquarters.

Supplying the connections can sometimes have Fred Wade, vice president and CIO of Feld Entertainment Inc., which owns the circus, feeling like the guy who rides the bicycle on the high wire. Dial-up is a clumsy solution for a business that travels 30,000 miles by train each year. Wade has pulled telephone cables into the campgrounds for dial-up, experimented with wireless and is planning to look into satellite hookups—but so far nothing has satisfied him. "Unfortunately, a lot of vendors talk a good story," he says, "but there's a lot of marketing hype."

Wade adds that wireless technology in the U.S. "is about as good as a cell phone—the coverage isn't there yet. And the international side of the equation is a whole different world. They're on a different frequency." In the U.S., in fact, he shut down the wireless efforts for 2001 after his vendor went bankrupt. "We had 128k connectivity in 300 cities, supposedly. When it worked, you could get your e-mail and do videoconferencing and instant messaging all simultaneously—just like having an ISDN line. But when it didn't work…."

Early in 2002 he'll be testing a satellite hookup, with two-way transmission of data. "Instead of pulling landlines, I'd like to be like the military in Desert Storm: Put up a satellite connection, and run a wide-area network and local-area wireless."

Wade's experience reflects that of other executives we spoke with. "We would like to move to wireless, but half our sales guys spend a significant part of the day in rural areas, and the cellular service is sketchy," says Rick Pullen, IS manager at Centennial Foods, a wholesale food distribution company based in Calgary, Alberta. So, his firm's 50 sales people still rely on dial-up connections.

Even so, Pullen is among the 26 percent of our survey respondents who say their company has increased revenues by providing mobile technology to their employees. Centennial's salespeople borrow customer phone lines to dial up headquarters on their Windows laptops and enter orders, check inventories and review customer accounts.

"We are very pleased," Pullen says. "We sell more line items per invoice, and we have greater margins. The salespeople can see a customer's order history for the past 54 weeks, so they don't miss anything the customer might want. And they can see the margins on everything we offer, so they can offer higher-margin items to the customer. "

Other firms are finding success with wireless. Iain Gillott, founder of iGillott Research Inc. in Austin, Texas, a market strategy consultancy focused on the mobile and wireless industries, recently studied 35 Fortune 500 companies that experienced positive ROI on wireless programs. The most successful companies have kept their initiatives limited to one or two targeted applications, Gillott says, and they have leveraged applications and devices they already own.

"There has been a feeling that not many companies were doing anything with wireless, other than e-mail," Gillott says. "What we found is that there are a lot of people doing a lot of things—they're just not telling anyone about it. They consider it a competitive advantage."

E-mail is still the most common wireless application, says John Stehman, principal analyst at the Robert Frances Group Inc., an IT research firm based in Westport, Conn. What's being rolled out now, he says, are wireless field-service applications—service engineers getting their next trouble call via wireless, for example—and sales-force automation applications. These projects are going forward even amid budget cutting, because they're not a big expense when compared with the resulting gains in productivity.

Stehman warns, however, that wireless isn't completely ready for anything that is time critical. "The wireless infrastructure we're using for data is no better than the one we're using for voice, and that one needs a lot of help." Some users, he says, have installed middleware to cover the gaps.

The biggest problem for technology executives, Stehman adds, is the confusion created by so-called "third generation" or 3G wireless services. "All the promises for faster speeds, better access, better coverage—they're promises, not fact. They will require significant infrastructure, significant investment, and they will be very hard to do." This next generation network is appearing in geographic pockets in the U.S. "Unless you're in those little areas, it doesn't do you much good," he says.

Still, the promise of wireless computing keeps most everyone interested. Five years from now, wireless devices will be like television sets today, Stehman says. You can take a TV set anywhere today and just plug it in. "That future device will have an intelligent radio card looking for all the signals out there and connect you to the strongest automatically, no matter which carrier owns it. You don't care who provides electric power today; that will happen for wireless in the future."

And some CIOs are thinking big. Lt. Michael Kozak, CIO and IT director of the Rochester (N.Y.) Police Department, plans a transformation in the way the department uses information to fight crime, starting with an initiative to equip some 300 officers on the road with wireless laptops. Instead of returning to headquarters to write up reports by hand, officers would prepare them electronically and file them from their squad cars.

The data from their reports will be analyzed to track crime statistics geographically, look for patterns, and forecast where and when future crimes might occur. Up-to-date data will be available in real time. "Let's say an officer has been off for two days," Kozak says. "He signs on and the computer recognizes he's been away, so it gives him an idea of what's been going on and flags safety issues."

Reflecting on what's coming in mobile computing, and particularly in wireless, Stehman of the Robert Frances Group says: "There will be some turmoil in 2002, but at the end of the day, it will get better."—Terry A. Kirkpatrick

This article was originally published on 01-01-2002
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