Deployment Dilemma: Reaching Unplugged Customers

SAN MATEO (02/24/2000) - Most companies look at deploying wireless technologies as something that can wait. Surely there are more pressing and -- more importantly -- better understood projects to which the IT department's scant resources could be applied. What about Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000? Or desktop upgrades?

But the longer you procrastinate, the harder the job will be down the road, experts say -- like in 2003, when 61.5 million wireless data service subscribers are heading to your competitor for their products or services. And with the WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) Forum and the Symbian mobile device alliance two weeks ago putting forth more standards to make the transition less painful, the time to move is now.

The truth is that, although daunting and costly to implement, wireless applications are here to stay. And as with the Internet, those who embrace the wireless world earliest will gain significant competitive advantages in the market down the road.

The number of wireless subscribers pulling data off the Internet will increase by 730 percent in the next three years, according to market research company International Data Corp. (IDC). Combine that with the information appliance revolution (89 million units in use by 2004), and the basic HTML Web site -- which companies have spent years perfecting for viewing over 15-inch monitors -- just lost a lot of relevance.

And given some of the new players intent on muscling in on the mobile platform space, such as Transmeta, the decisions IT departments need to make won't be easy (see article, below).

"A lot of the reason that wireless hasn't fully happened yet is that it is too hard," says Iain Gillott, an analyst at IDC, in Austin, Texas. "There's always a bigger issue than wireless that IT does understand that won't get them fired if it explodes. This is not an insignificant project and it's not something you would want to do for fun, but it is something you have to do."

Projects of this size and scope that require so many different partners and touch every part of your business can eat up an IT department's budget in no time. And with wireless technologies changing by the day, educated and forward-thinking decisions need to come down from the heads of your company -- and IT needs to be ready to act.

To renovate a company's applications for a wireless world, the IT organization faces dual challenges in delivering information to both outside customers and internal employees who have different information needs. Although each presents its own set of unique challenges, solutions for both audiences begin with the end-user.

"The end-users dictate the policy on these applications, because it all depends on what you use it for," says Robert Emanuel, project manager for the IS division at United Airlines, in San Francisco.

United wirelessly enabled a slew of its legacy applications for a highly mobile sales force that outsources United's excess supplies and services. Choosing to Web-enable all its existing applications, United gave its sales team Windows CE devices because of the relatively sophisticated browsers that allowed them to access inventory data and scheduling information.

Looking to make even more of its information available to the outside world, Delta Air Lines is making flight arrival and departure information available to flyers via a number of wireless devices. Still in beta testing, the program is being run in conjunction with IBM to deliver the information to handhelds, cell phones, and other devices. The company is hoping to roll out the service by the end of this quarter, and to build momentum around the idea, Delta is giving away wireless Palm VII handhelds to business-class passengers who make their reservations online between now and the end of the month.

Both United and Delta made their application and platform decisions based on the type of user that would be accessing the information.

"We are running some programs with Palm and some with WinCE," United's Emanuel says. "Execs like Palm, and the sales force likes CE. It all depends on what you use it for."

Most analysts agree that, for the most part, companies have just begun thinking about making information accessible via wireless devices. Aside from deciding how employees and customers will be accessing the information, another crucial decision is how the company is going to implement wireless access to its existing applications.

The idea of rewriting all of its applications for each individual wireless device, taking into account screen size and bandwidth, is obviously out of the question. Working to solve this problem during the past two years, about 300 companies in the wireless market have bought into the WAP, which will provide a standard way of bringing Web sites to different devices.

But that doesn't mean IT departments are off the hook.

WAP-enabling a Web site will still require some rewriting if the site is written in standard HTML. But going forward, Web site builders will also want to develop everything in the emerging XHTML (Extensible HTML), which will then only require small modules for each additional category of device. The latest version of XHTML was released to developers earlier this month.

According to Scott Goldman, CEO of the WAP Forum, writing to XHTML "is advice that anyone should adhere to regardless [of whether] they plan to provide a wireless service."

In addition, the Symbian alliance last week announced its Device Family Reference Designs for three categories of mobile devices. Symbian is an alliance among Matsushita, Psion, Ericsson, Nokia, and Motorola that holds a lot of sway in how the device market develops.

On the back end, solutions are now available to make wireless life easier for IT, such as IBM's transcoding technology which is part of its pervasive computing division. This technology would eliminate the need to write new applications specifically for wireless platforms.

Whereas IBM's technology will take an existing application and enable it for wireless access on the fly, some in the industry believe that for a truly effective solution, applications will need to be written for the specific purpose of being run wirelessly.

"You need to think about the user experience," says Tom Trinneer, vice president of data product development at AT&T Wireless, in Redmond, Wash. "We believe that building purpose-built applications is not hard to do and the companies that do that will win. Does transcoding work? Yes it does. We don't think it is an either-or proposition, but we think the apps that people will like best will be purpose built."

One thing that everyone contemplating wireless seems to agree on is that there is no way to do it alone. IT departments that have been accustomed to managing large projects internally will find themselves giving up control to companies such as IBM, EDS, Wireless Knowledge, and the new breed of wireless systems integrators, such as Aether Systems. Companies such as these will bring in the right partners for every element of the solution and help your company decide what direction to take, ultimately delivering an integrated package.

"You have to find a partner to do this," says United's Emanuel, who teamed with AT&T, River Run Software, and Sierra Technologies to implement the airline's solution.

Fortunately there are any number of companies willing to act as systems integrators. Everything from wireless service providers to former resellers are getting into the act. And according to IDC's Gillott, the most important decision you make will be who you choose to partner with.

"The first thing to do is to go find a good partner," Gillott says. "You need to sign a deal with someone that will make this thing for you."

Although it may still seem to be a work in progress, the wireless market is speeding quickly ahead. Those companies that choose to watch it go by may find themselves watching their competition go by as well. You can bank on wireless deployments picking up speed even faster than Windows 2000: With the majority of companies waiting until next year to install Windows 2000, now would be a good time to get your wireless world in order.

Dan Briody (dan_briody@infoworld.com) is an InfoWorld editor at large covering mobile platforms and technologies. He is author of the Wireless World column at www.infoworld.com; Mike Lattig (michael_lattig@infoworld.com) is a senior writer covering application development issues.

CRUSOE TO THE RESCUE?

Although issues of network bandwidth and application integration may be paramount to a company's wireless strategy, the fact remains that those applications must run on a network -- and that network must be accessed by powerful hardware.

In today's wireless world, that hardware is largely based on traditional processor technology. So devices as small as the palm of your hand continue to chew through battery life like rescued castaways through their first meal back on the mainland.

But just over the horizon is a technology that its creators say will alleviate the current burdens of battery life and power consumption faced by mobile workers, freeing them from the power cords that bind.

That technology -- the Crusoe chip -- is a combination of software and silicon introduced earlier this year by newcomer Transmeta Corp.

According to Chris Kleisath, director of product management at Sybase, in Emeryville, Calif., -- which just weeks ago at LinuxWorld became the first company to demonstrate a solution based on the chip -- Crusoe poses an exciting power proposition for mobile devices.

"What Crusoe will do is enable device manufacturers to create new mobile devices where the processing power and speed of the devices goes dramatically up," Kleisath says.

"That could certainly open up the [wireless] realm for application developers to really start to look very seriously at these kinds of devices for robust, mission-critical functions," Kleisath adds.

Another advantage Crusoe could offer is a productivity gain, says Michael Fitzgibbons, director of product management for Internet and mobile technologies at Autodesk, in San Rafael, Calif., which is currently developing a mobile mapping application called Maui.

"Just imagine the benefit of being able to have your application up and running continuously for the entire workday," Fitzgibbons says. "For that reason alone, power consumption is a huge issue."

Of course, Crusoe has yet to get off the island: Beta products using the chip are not expected until this spring, so IT managers can't yet be sure if its promise is real or simply a mirage.

But if Crusoe can do all that is expected, it may just be the thing to keep your company's wireless strategy from running aground and leaving your mobile workforce stranded.

POST PC ERA: CONNECTING TO DIVERSE DEVICESAlready feel like computers are invading every aspect of your life? There's more ahead: Apparently there are still some pockets of stand-alone, dumb machines out there performing such mundane tasks as keeping your milk cold and coffee hot -- and IBM plans to do something about it.

Of course, connecting corporate refrigerators probably isn't at the top of most IT to-do lists -- not yet anyway. (Imagine if you could remotely monitor the molding status on that green Tupperware that's been on the bottom shelf for three weeks.) But the idea of "pervasive computing," as put forth by IBM, could be the key to connecting wireless workers -- and even customers -- to a company's network.

The idea, says Jon Prial, director of marketing for IBM's Pervasive Computing Division, in Somers, N.Y., is to provide a layer of technologies that will open up access to a vast array of heterogeneous devices without overburdening IT managers with the need to support a multitude of different protocols.

Do that, says Prial, and the wireless world becomes much more powerful -- and much more manageable.

"Basically, we could get to the point where computing power is as easily and transparently accessible as electricity," Prial says.

While the specific technologies involved in the initiative sound futuristic -- such as "transcoding," for example -- one company is already working closely with IBM to make pervasive computing a reality. PlanetRX, an online pharmaceuticals provider, sees in the initiative a chance to greatly expand its reach.

"We view this whole non-Web, non-PC-based access through the Internet as a very big opportunity," says James Chong, CTO at PlanetRX, in South San Francisco, Calif. "I personally believe [that] in the next two to three years we will see a great number of customers coming through those channels as opposed to straight through the Web, so we're aggressively pushing ahead with supporting [a variety of disconnected] devices."

PlanetRX's first project with IBM was to enable Palm-based shopping via its Web site, and so far it has been a success.

The company is now looking at future endeavors that would allow them to notify customers via the device of their choice when their prescriptions are ready to be filled or even when they should take their medication.

Without IBM's pervasive computing technologies, Chong says, the amount of work that would go into developing that type of customer interaction would be a tough pill to swallow.

"The last thing I want to do is have a whole bunch of people writing device drivers; that's not our core competency," Chong says. "With IBM, we can have them do that for us and provide the richness of functionality that will allow us to hit all these different devices."

IBM Corp., in Armonk, N.Y., is at www.ibm.com.

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