Wireless Gets Down to Business

From retail storefronts to the military's front lines, wireless technology now permeates nearly every sector of the U.S. economy. The technology has come a long way from simple bar-code reading with wireless PDAs. Today, tags affixed to retail garments taken into a dressing room can wirelessly signal a wall-mounted screen to display color choices and fabric information. College students can do research in the cafeteria instead of the library, and forklift operators can save themselves hundreds of miles of travel in factories by receiving product requests from computers mounted on their vehicles.

By the end of 2002, seven out of 10 companies had adopted wireless technology, according to a survey of 1,251 U.S. and Canadian companies in 18 industries by IDC in Framingham, Mass.

"Economics and technology are making wireless available to a lot more people," says Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "We're seeing it increase in its capabilities. People know what it can do, and they're working on projects that make sense -- updating them more into back-end systems."

Purchases of wireless hardware reached $2.2 billion in 2002 and are expected to top $3.9 billion by 2006, according to research firm In-Stat/MDR. Units sold will skyrocket from 18 million to 75 million in 2006, which suggests that the cost of deploying wireless will continue to fall.

To learn how wireless is being adapted to meet changing needs, we took a look at the most innovative uses of it in 10 sectors of the economy.

Education
The Challenges of Being First

Three years ago, Carnegie Mellon University was voted "Most Wired Campus" by the online publication Yahoo Internet Life for its pioneering use of wireless access in more than 30 buildings.
Today, five years after the university installed its first wireless LAN, administrators are looking to upgrade the system with new standards and faster speeds, which will require 1,200 new access points for the 7,000 registered wireless devices on campus.
It's a problem facing many institutions. Some 87% of schools and institutions surveyed by IDC now use wireless technology, and 90% say bandwidth and network availability issues top their list of technology challenges.
Rough estimates of the cost of Carnegie Mellon's upgrade are about $3 million, three times what the university has spent so far on wireless. What's more, funding isn't as plentiful as it was five years ago, says Chuck Bartel, director of network services.
But one simple truth has bumped the project up the priority list: "If you don't deploy it yourself, it will probably get deployed by someone else, and in a manner you don't want," most likely by tech-savvy students, Bartel says.
Bartel is concerned that if students don't have the wireless access they need, they'll find cheap hardware at a local electronics store and bring it onto campus. "If we haven't put the proper security in the mix, anybody can access university data," Bartel says.
The combination of wireless access and tech-savvy students uncovers another truth -- a network that's always available sometimes shouldn't be.
"At times," says Bartel, "faculty doesn't want access to the Internet or instant messaging between students" -- during tests, for example. But now that wireless is being embedded into laptops and handheld devices, "it's a little more problematic," he notes.
But don't expect this technology institution to step back from the bleeding edge anytime soon. Carnegie Mellon is developing new uses for its wireless network in handhelds, laptops, robots and wearable computers.
Students in one graduate-level development course are working on intelligent agents embedded in handheld devices that will offer weather reports, restaurant options and even the location of friends, based on the user's location. The university's robotics institute is experimenting with collecting information by attaching wireless components to robots. "Once you have the infrastructure in place," Bartel says, "the juices start flowing in terms of how somebody can use it."
"They're using wireless LANs in classrooms because of the need to move around and just to give students the freedom to move anytime, anywhere," says Gartner's Dulaney. "They do it for convenience. Plus, they love to play with that stuff."
Finance
When Time Is Money

Soon after launching its first wireless offering in 1998, Fidelity Investments realized that wireless subscribers were very attractive customers. "They have more assets, they're more financially active and more tech-savvy," says Joe Ferra, chief wireless officer.
That appealing combination keeps the Boston-based firm listening to its customers' demands for new wireless features and monitoring their use of every new function.
Today the company's wireless offering, Fidelity Anywhere, lets 170,000 customers get real-time stock quotes, make after-hours trades, short-sell and, with phone-integrated BlackBerry handhelds, call a Fidelity rep with the touch of a button. The firm also now lets customers manage their retirement accounts, charitable donations and insurance needs wirelessly.
While wireless capabilities expand, security issues remain an obstacle. "The level of security just isn't high enough yet" for many financial services functions to be deployed wirelessly, says Wai Sing Lee, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan in Toronto. Until Wireless Application Protocol 2.0 or 802.11 standards come out, real innovation will be put on hold, he says.
Some two-thirds of the financial services industry uses wireless technology today, with about 20% of those users in the initial stages of a rollout, according to IDC. What's more, 29% of financial services companies surveyed have or plan to provide online trading capabilities to their clients.
Ferra says security remains a paramount concern, and Fidelity continues to "look at what's out there" in terms of security standards. But right now it relies on encryption and authentication developed using the Handheld Device Markup Language.
The firm even chooses which functions will be offered on each type of device based on security concerns, browser capabilities and latency. "It would be very difficult for me to convince people at Fidelity to offer real-time quotes over a given device if we know the latency is 30 to 40 seconds. It's got to be a lot quicker than that," Ferra says, adding that those discrepancies are becoming less of an issue.
"I'm convinced this will become a predominant way that people conduct their business with us. These devices are convenient, more reasonably priced and easier to use than ever before."
Energy & Chemicals
Wireless Powers Sales Force, Productivity of Maintenance Crew
Like most executives in the energy and chemicals industry, the upper echelons of Celanese Chemicals Ltd. are fairly conservative, says Bill Schmitt, the director of e-business at Celanese. "Anything that looks or smells like bleeding-edge technology makes us pretty nervous," he says.
But the $3 billion chemicals company was comfortable enough with handheld devices and wireless LANs by 2002 to adopt the technology primarily as a productivity tool for sales staff. Now the Dallas-based company is looking at wireless technology to speed maintenance at its chemical plants.
"When you run continuous production units, time is money," Schmitt says. When a pump goes down, for example, maintenance workers travel through football-field-size plants by foot or bicycle to inspect the problem and then travel back to the control room and storage room to arrange for repairs -- which could take up to an hour, he says.
In the future, employees will use Hewlett-Packard Co. Pocket PCs to report problems and arrange for repair equipment to be brought to the site. A pilot test is planned for later in the year.
Schmitt also wants to extend wireless capabilities globally to customers in China and Asia. But he acknowledges that the technology "isn't there yet."
Europe and Asia were quick to adopt mobile phones and Short Messaging Service messaging, he says, but "in wireless data, the U.S. is still ahead."
Health Care
Hands-off Technology in a Hands-on Business

Tim Stettheimer, CIO at St. Vincent's Hospital
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Jim Stettheimer, CIO at St. Vincent's Hospital
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