• July 1, 2006
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Wireless: Hot or Not?

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It may be misleading to say that this article is about hot wireless technologies, since many sources think nothing is particularly new in the industry. Whether or not that's true, the space itself is hot. Mobile technologies are experiencing a groundswell of market interest and growth. One of the reasons for this is the next-frontier nature of wireless--just as the notebook PC started as an inferior-but-portable younger sibling to the desktop, wireless devices are coming into their own as full-featured business tools after an apprenticeship as a piece of extra kit. "As more applications go onto the laptop, the laptop is getting crowded. Customers are looking to offload functions to their wireless devices," says Scott Stone, president and CEO of mobility developer Padcom. Stone offers law enforcement as an example. More police departments and government agencies are expressing interest in getting data access from a handheld unit instead of a laptop. But expressing interest is not the same as buying devices. "There are entities still getting used to all of this. Users are the ones pushing--they want to become more productive," Stone says. "They recognize the value of mobility more than the IT department does." Slowness to act on the promise of mobile data, whether it's from IT or C-level executives, has contributed to the current retardation of advancement in the wireless world. "I see a lot of spaghetti being thrown at the wall," Stone says, noting that neither vendors nor buyers are always sure how to proceed. "If you step back and see what people are spending money on, many are still finishing up their first mobility implementation. Some are taking the next step--mobilizing business-critical applications." Wireless is also useful for business continuity, according to Stone, acting as failover capacity for the wired phone system. Still, there's no question that mobile CRM has made a big impression. T.L. Neff, executive vice president of Pyxis Mobile, has witnessed the changes that have taken place. "Four years ago, if you looked at any CRM vendor, they didn't have a mobile component. When we started selling in 2001 it took some convincing to get people interested," Neff says. "But today, every RFP has mobility involved; nobody asks 'What's the ROI?' anymore." Amedeo Tarzia, managing director of Corum Corporation, agrees: "It used to be that CRM led the way in implementations and that mobility was an add-on. Now, mobile is the lead--you can close a sale on the strength of your mobile component alone." Tarzia, an enthusiastic follower of the mobile CRM segment, believes there is great potential in some more recent developments, especially the expansion of choice in wireless operating systems and platforms. Despite great interest among those who are aware of the potential, general awareness of wireless CRM is not as widespread as industry experts would like. "Salesforce.com bought Sendia because of this. The word still has to get out there that 'Hey, I can get CRM on my wireless,'" says John Carini, chief software architect of iEnterprises. Some of his hope is pinned on Microsoft's activities in CRM, wireless email, and mobile operating systems. "Microsoft is entering the wireless device space, which will change things in terms of hardware eventually. The important effect in the short term is that it will raise awareness." Despite that Carini says he only trusts RIM at this point. "The platform is more mature than anything else out there. And Windows Vista [the newest OS] could be problematic, since its support for third-party push applications is very limited." Kevin Burden, mobile devices program manager for IDC, says that now, "we're a lot farther along in creating the mobile enterprise, but we're not there yet. Microsoft has a deal with the Census Bureau to provide 500,000 Smartphones. It's a substantial implementation, but so what? They should have done it two years ago." Government moves slowly, but it's also one of the hot verticals, according to Burden--many government workers are mobile. Burden has seen some clever attempts at building awareness and desire for mobile CRM. "SAP is building a wireless solution out of what works for its own sales team," he says. "To get customers interested, they just have the sales reps use mobile CRM for their own purposes when they go give demos of other SAP software." Burden, like Tarzia, seems impatient for the arrival of a more fully connected workforce. "There's really no excuse for any of us to not be reachable at a moment's notice by cell phone. We're getting to the same point with email. Being away from the desk is not an excuse." Neither is unauthorized access to information. "IT using security concerns as an excuse to move slowly is going away. The security is there." Choice is another key to mobility's future. "The RIM lawsuit [when NTP sued the BlackBerry maker for patent infringement] caused people to open their eyes and realize they needed alternatives, especially the ability to deliver and support multiple platforms," Neff says. Beyond platform choice, there is the issue of Smartcard support and other content. Neff has been fielding customer queries about add-in modules to device software. "For example, we have deep reach into financial services, and our customers there want to integrate news, market data, and other feeds." One of the reasons for this, Neff claims, is that "wireless devices still aren't good enough for Web browsers." What about the network?
Of course, none of the software and hardware is worth a thing if there's no network coverage. There's been a lot of talk about wide area broadband wireless technology (WiMAX), both here in CRM magazine and elsewhere. Its high speed, tremendous coverage footprint, and limited impact on the skyline are exciting, but chances are you've never seen it in action. That's because developers are still trying to iron out the problems with regular wide area Wi-Fi, and even with cellular technology, before trying to tackle their steroid-popping younger brother. An attractive business model is one of the issues. "People are having trouble figuring out how to make money with wide area wireless," says Carl Weisman, vice president of engineering for implementer 5G Wireless. "Hospitality has some promise if vendors change the way they sell it. Instead of selling the equipment and service to the property owner up front, they should give it to the owner for free and take a cut of whatever guests get charged." Location-based services are a possible lure for some. "Most providers are interested in location-based services," Weisman says. The problem with that is, most methods require triangulation, which means a lot of investment in hardware. "Now they're working on an LBS system that works with fewer than three points, which could really speed the uptake." Performance is another stumbling block for wireless. "There really aren't a lot of tools for measuring wireless broadband performance, especially under load," Weisman says. "It will take a year or more after deployment for anecdotal evidence to show how well the network is performing." In addition, he says, there are technological limitations to how the service is delivered, and that complicates finding an appropriate price point. "You can't mix paid users and free users and limit the data rate of the free ones, because of the way wireless bandwidth limiting works. Imagine 20 people on a wireless access point. If 19 of them are really close to it and get good speed, but the one distant person is only getting 1 megabit per second, all 20 will be reduced to that speed." Wireless phone technology helped spawn wireless data networking, but it's not guaranteed--reread May's "Front Office" column if you doubt that. Mesh networking, an alternative to cellular, is making the rounds at the moment, but Weisman is skeptical, citing signal loss. "People say, 'If mesh worked better, the cellular guys would be using it.' There's an interesting confluence of circumstances with rollouts of big mesh projects like Philadelphia and San Francisco." Cellular Wi-Fi and WiMAX won't take off, Weisman says, "until cellular providers realize [they aren't] in competition with their core business. WiMAX mobile looks like good competition for cellular, but it's still five to seven years out." For now, fixed WiMAX has problems. "The first wave of equipment works in the 3.5 GHz range, which is popular internationally but not much in use here," Weisman says. There are two other common frequency bands, 2.75 GHz and 5.8 GHz, and there's no agreement on what will be used. As such, the technology will probably start out being used for behind-the-scenes data wrangling. "WiMAX will be used for point-to-point backhaul on other networks," Weisman says, at least until there's a single standard. Open A New Window(s) One common thread in discussions of wireless is the arrival of Windows Mobile version 5. Because it uses a new push email function that doesn't rely on server-based communication (like BlackBerry Enterprise Server does) Windows Mobile has the potential to open up any wireless device to email and other data applications, offering something previously lacking in the industry: choice. "Microsoft is putting the decision to deploy mobility into the hands of individuals. This is what they need in order to fuel rapid growth," Burden says. "Before the end of 2006, we're going to see some sizable deployments around Windows Mobile. The Microsoft solution is late but it's very slick." "We should begin to see more frequent use of Windows Mobile devices," Stone says. This second option (or third, if you consider Palm) should be used by organizations as further leverage for adoption of wireless CRM and other applications. "It's not enough to wait for an employee to decide to go online or wireless." Voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN), yet another technology that's coming into its own now, can improve workers' communication ability and serve as fodder for speech analytics engines as well. "What's truly hot is enterprise voice, if I want to gauge hot based on the inquiries I get from IDC clients," Burden says. "VoWLAN and network convergence could be the springboard that drives the development and adoption of other mobile services." Stone is keen on the idea of groundswell, users driving wireless adoption before a solution is forced upon them. "Workers want to be effective, and they use what's available to improve productivity." Cost should not be an issue when the boss finds out the workforce wants wireless functions, according to Stone. "Think about what you invest in mobilizing one application on one network. To mobilize, along with connectivity and security, we add about three to five percent of the cost." So, while there is no one technology, application, or device that is about to arise and dominate the wireless industry, the market as a whole is healthy and growing. "Wireless is a steady force that will continue to increase for several years to come," Carini says. Sheryl Kingstone, CRM program manager for Yankee Group, best sums up the reason: "Don't underplay ubiquitous connectivity; it's on the way. The more information we have, the more we'll want to use it." Contact Senior Editor Marshall Lager at mlager@destinationCRM.com Mobile Acceleration Corum Corporation, a Sage partner, is the developer of Corum Mobile, a platform-agnostic mobile CRM deployment solution. Managing Director Amedeo Tarzia: On platforms: "This is the year of mobile CRM, the perfect storm. Windows Mobile 5 is the fruition of the Magneto email push project. Palm is getting in bed with Microsoft with the Palm 700W. BlackBerry has the new version of its operating system. It's also why Salesforce.com bought Sendia, to get its own wireless capabilities." On convergence: "Microsoft and RIM have stayed out of one another's space until now. Palm played the middle between them, and got run over. The new BlackBerry pagers use Intel hardware now and have added a lot of power, while Windows Mobile is being used for converged devices with email as well as phone and PDA functions. We've always been platform agnostic, but now we're opening up our system as open source to take advantage of the possibilities." On what's coming: "By Q4, the biggest thing will be the introduction of new converged devices running the popular operating systems, giving consumers a choice. It's just like how the PC beat the Mac when home computing took off. As mobility in customer facing apps takes the lead role, the cart will pull the horse." --M.L. Getting to the Point 5G Wireless Solutions creates and markets wireless broadband solutions for university and municipal campuses, and provides wireless networking equipment to a select group of VARs and wireless Internet service providers. Most people have at least a basic understanding of how cellular telephone technology works, and cellular broadband is similar. In his white paper, "EnMeshed in Wireless: Trade-offs in Citywide Network Architectures," Carl Weisman of 5G Wireless explains that "macrocell base stations are deployed from tall towers or the tops of tall buildings with the objective of covering as large an area as possible from a single location. Then, dead spots and hot spots are filled in with smaller microcells." The benefits and drawbacks of cellular-style wireless are also similar to those of the phone technology. The proven utility of cellular is balanced by two catches: deployment control and backhaul. "Base stations must be deployed high up from a tower or a tall building," Weisman writes. "Often, finding towers or tall buildings in ideal locations may be challenging, and when they are identified, obtaining installation rights can be time consuming." In addition, each base station must have a direct backhaul (wired or wireless) for getting the signal back to the network or Internet. The other viable choice for wireless data coverage of large areas is mesh architecture. "Mesh is an architecture which uses many, many access points, placed relatively close together, typically on light poles throughout the city," Weisman writes. "Each access point is used for both distribution (getting the signal to the end user) and for backhaul." Thus, fewer wired network connections are needed. According to Weisman, the advantages of mesh are redundancy and non-line-of-site functionality. The sheer number of access points means that several can fail without loss of connection, and the signal can be maintained in areas where cellular finds it hard to go. Attractive as those advantages may be, there are also disadvantages. First is bandwidth, or the "1/n problem." Weisman writes, "Since each access point in the mesh is used for both distribution and backhaul, the available bandwidth gets divided by the number of 'hops' the signal makes on its way back to the network. So, for example, in a 10 access point mesh, the available bandwidth is just 1/10 of the total available bandwidth."
Image and quoted material reproduced with permission of 5G Wireless Solutions, Inc. The other problem is TCO. "Many independent studies have shown that, over time, the cost to deploy and maintain a wireless network far exceeds the cost of the initial hardware outlay," Weisman writes. "And since so many access points require excessive network administration and maintenance, mesh becomes very expensive over time." --M.L.
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