Can there still be any question that wireless connectivity will play a key role in competitiveness? I hope not, because of the many areas where the dot com, e-everything frenzy is raising blood pressure, wireless is the one where there ought to be least debate.
Arguably, there's also the least time. Hardware, application and middleware vendors and carriers are all racing each other to deliver what they seem determined to call "solutions"--despite the fact that a solution that doesn't integrate all those players is a poor solution indeed. That having been said, you can count on the fact that your competitors are at this very moment looking at using wireless to whip your behind.
Wireless makes sense. If it's done right and implemented for less than the cost of an ERP system, it reduces lag time and the cost of sales. The danger here is that in your lust after the sizzle, you'll fail to pay enough attention to the quality of the steak. Yes, it will undoubtedly give your salespeople a leg up if they can access client histories while sitting in a cab or check widget inventories in real time when a customer expresses interest in an order. But shouldn't you worry first whether you can reach that salesperson who's somewhere between Akron and Ashland? What good is fancy wireless technology when you still have to leave a voice mail message on an office phone asking that she check in?
One vision of the future was fleshed out in May when OmniSky went live with its wireless messaging service for the Palm V handheld. Put together by former executives of 3Com and Infoseek with funding from 3Com and wireless integrator and service provider Aether Systems, the OmniSky service pulls together AT&T Wireless, modem manufacturer Novatel Wireless and an array of content providers to deliver about the coolest (and coolest-looking) wireless data service yet offered: personal e-mail delivered wirelessly via AT&T's CDPD technology and wireless access to a broad array of portals and information services.
But you knew that; you've seen the ads. What they won't tell you is that your e-mail account must be on a POP3 server, which excludes many business systems, and that the Web access via the Palm V won't support any authentication that depends on Windows protocols or Internet Explorer. OmniSky is as neat as all get out; it's just not yet a mature business tool.
Talk to a wireless phone vendor today and you'll find that everything is WAP. The Wireless Application Protocol is being built into virtually every new model of wireless phone and many Internet-enabled handhelds as well. As a standard, WAP is important for the evolution of wireless functionality. But to access your company's sites, you need to have deployed a server that's WAP-enabled; got one handy? To make your pages accessible, they need to be written not in HTML but in WML, the Wireless Markup Language, a small-format display language derived from the Handheld Devices Markup Language (HDML) and thus a cousin to XML. Meanwhile, alternative approaches--among them the direction suggested by XML and AvantGo's work with Web access in handhelds--raise the possibility that recoding in WML, and perhaps the use of WAP, may not be necessary.
Wireless data is dependent on wireless data networks. If you'd like an education on the availability of wireless, pick any of the networks: CDPD, the Bellsouth Wireless Data network, American Mobile's ARDIS, Sprint's CDMA data network. Head for that company's Web site and locate a map of coverage. Typically, you'll find the coverage is solid along I-95 in the Northeast Corridor of the United states and tightly hugs most other major North American cities. That's fine, of course, so long as your road warriors stay within those coverage areas. If they roam across a coverage border, though, they'll lose wireless connectivity. At that point, either the device they're using has stored locally the data that was being accessed (seen any wireless phones with much memory lately?), or they're cut off.
Even where there is coverage, services and support are notoriously uneven. Digital phone users opting for the cost-effective nationwide "bucket" plans (you buy a bucket of a certain numbers of minutes each month for a fixed price and don't pay roaming or long distance charges) often are surprised to discover that in some cases their voice mail notification of messages waiting is not delivered to them when they're roaming. Why? Because of technology incompatibilities between service areas, even if the service in both locations carries the same brand. And getting help in such a situation can quickly develop into a classic "he said/she said" situation, of the type that'll be familiar to anyone who's ever tried to get help with a technology problem involving two vendors.
I do not mean to suggest that wireless is unique in its challenges or that you should avoid it because of them. Wireless will be an incredibly important enabling technology very soon, and its growing pains are no different from those of any other technology. But it is still evolving, so business wireless in 18 months is likely to look very different from what's available today.
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Yet you likely can't afford to wait. So what's a business to do?
Succinctly put, the answer is to get some help. Find a consultant or integrator or VAR who has experience with both wireless and your industry and markets. Lay out what you need, and let that partner put together a roadmap for you. Insist that any solution (and yes, it should be a solution, not just some tools) be scalable and also portable, in the systems sense that it can be moved to new platforms as needed. Make sure that the solution will deliver coverage to you where you need it, using as many network providers as necessary. Have that partner explore with you options for extending your SFA, CRM, ERP or other enterprise software to mobile platforms, and also for delivering access to legacy databases to people on the road.
Meanwhile, check out some of the new wireless tools yourself. Get OmniSky for the Palm V or a Palm VII, or an Internet-enabled phone. Then see how your favorite stock is doing, in real time, the next time you're in a taxi. It's fun, and it'll make you a better player when it comes to wireless deployment in your company.