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."

This article was originally published on 05-01-2001
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