Wireless finally connects

There's only so much hype a technology can take before people turn their backs on it. And so when the economy and tech spending slumped, it was understandable that CIOs stopped looking at wireless as the next big thing. But now it's time to take another look: The technologies that make wireless work have gotten better. So much better that the respondents to CIO's wireless survey (our third since the fall of 2000) said they are actively looking beyond personal productivity tools such as e-mail to business process applications such as updating inventory and accessing medical records.

That's right. Wireless is back.

Want proof? Seventy-five percent of our respondents are currently undertaking a wireless project. Furthermore, attitudes toward wireless technology are returning to levels last seen when the Nasdaq surpassed 5,000. Indeed, a whopping 68% said wireless is either important or somewhat important -- the exact same percentage as in 2000. Sixteen percent cited wireless as extremely important to their current business goals.

It's worth putting these attitudes in perspective. A year and a half ago, CIOs were so down on wireless that we didn't even bother including questions in our survey about the technology's importance to business plans. IT executives such as Thomson Financial CTO Jeff Scott simply explained that interest "has cooled a bit for [wireless] services, either because of the market conditions or a changed view of ROI for wireless, or both."

ROI is hard to come by, and for a simple reason. Wireless projects depend on three elements: the device, the network (whether that's via a cellular carrier, a satellite connection or a Wi-Fi LAN) and the application. If one of those elements isn't up to par, then the project won't work. No one uses cumbersome devices; people give up if they can't connect to the network, and there's no point in doing a project if you can't deliver the data. By 2002, most CIOs who tried wireless projects had encountered one or more of those problems. Devices had small screens that made it hard to view data, they ran out of batteries quickly -- sometimes wiping out all the information in the process -- and they were expensive. Networks, meanwhile, were proprietary, expensive and slow -- and that's when there was coverage. Project after project failed.

The ones that succeeded fell into predictable categories. The companies had large mobile workforces, depended on data from those workforces and, most importantly, could afford to invest in custom devices, proprietary coverage plans and homegrown applications. Common examples were trucking companies that tracked their drivers with GPS devices, shipping companies offering delivery confirmation, and utility companies whose repair crews collected large amounts of data about problems and fixes in the field.

Today, things are different. Both devices and network technologies have improved by leaps and bounds in the past year or so, says Phillip Redman, research vice president for wireless at Gartner.

Devices now have color screens, more memory and faster processors. Such improvements enabled Judith Flournoy, CIO of Kelley, Drye & Warren, to give her law firm's attorneys BlackBerrys to wirelessly e-mail legal documents. With network access in place, "these devices enable everything else," says Flournoy.

Added to that: Cellular carriers now support IP packets, meaning data can pass over existing voice networks. And wireless LANs have improved in the area of security.

The result is better, more reliable coverage and more bandwidth, which Thomas Jarrett, CIO and secretary of the department of technology and information for the state of Delaware, says makes it possible for him to outfit state employees with wireless laptops.

Also, says Redman, prices for both devices and network time are dropping between 15% and 20% each year. There is still work to be done on the application side, but many vendors, such as Microsoft, PeopleSoft and SAP, to name just three, are building wireless functionality into new versions of their software.

What it all boils down to, says AMR Research Director Dennis Gaughan, is that wireless technology is now available off the shelf, and even companies with long-standing investments in custom-developed wireless systems are starting to use commercial products and services. "It's making wireless a lot easier," he says.

The result is that CIOs -- any CIO -- can once again pursue wireless. According to CIO's most recent survey, 83% of CIOs have enabled wireless access to e-mail. Emboldened by the success of these projects and the decreased cost of wireless, almost 10% of CIOs are starting to pursue data-intensive wireless projects, such as access to CRM and ERP systems. While many of these projects are in the beta or pilot stages, the success of the trials, as well as the continued success of wireless e-mail, are proving that you don't have to be a transportation or package-delivery company to do wireless. Here are three stories from the front lines.

CBRE - An Inexpensive Way to Put Data in Real Estate Brokers' Hands

  • Business: Commercial real estate
  • Why wireless: Gives more data access to property brokers in the field
  • What they're doing: Making real estate listings available to handhelds via e-mail
  • Obstacles overcome: Poor quality of service from using e-mail to deliver database query results
  • Expected benefits: Increased sales

CBRE is the largest commercial real estate company in the world, with more than 10,000 listings. Every day brokers come into the office first and then go out to meet clients and show properties. A year and a half ago, CIO Steve Sutherland decided that it was time to let these brokers and other employees have wireless e-mail access. After piloting the project with members of the executive team, he made wireless e-mail available to any employee who was willing to buy a Goodlink device. So far, 500 people out of a potential pool of 14,000 have bought devices, and Sutherland expects adoption to skyrocket this year. It helps keep people in touch with clients, though he is realistic about the benefits. "It still takes 10 minutes to do 10 minutes of e-mail," he says.

What would really help productivity, Sutherland thought, would be to give brokers access to the property listing database. He recently did that for seven offices in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and it has had a dramatic effect on brokers' ability to do their jobs. For example, a client may have made an appointment to look at 5,000-square-foot office spaces, and the broker meets him with a list of properties that fit the description. Now, if after looking at the first property the client realizes that he needs 10,000 square feet, rather than rescheduling for the next day, the broker can simply use his device to access a list of appropriate properties in the area. So far, the application has about 100 users. This is a project that Sutherland has wanted to do ever since he first became CIO in 1994, but until now cost-effective technology wasn't available. Now, he says, "the barriers to entry are gone."

Providing access to a back-end system, such as the property database, is more complicated than access to e-mail. E-mail requires only that the end device be connected to the Internet for a moment; the messages are downloaded to the user's device and accessed regardless of online status. Web-based applications, on the other hand, require a persistent connection. Even though coverage has gotten better, the risk of a transmission getting dropped is too real to simply extend core applications to wireless devices through browsers. In order to extend an application to devices, CIOs need to design it in such a way that it doesn't require a constant connection. Sutherland bought a development tool from Good Technology that allows the broker accessing the property database to initiate a search while connected and then have the results delivered in an e-mail.

Sutherland eventually plans to roll out access to the property database to CBRE brokers all over the United States. Right now, each regional office has its own database, a leftover system from hurried Y2K preparations. He is in the process of replacing those systems with a nationwide PeopleSoft implementation, which will be accessible by any employee.

Sutherland says that the project cost only "a few thousand dollars" for software, since employees have to buy their own devices and pay for their own service time, and he used an existing server. The agents' increased efficiency more than justifies the expense, he says.

CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL OF ORANGE COUNTY - Hospital Massages Existing Networks to Fill Doctors'Wireless Order

  • Business: Hospital
  • Why wireless: Meets user demand for flexible data access
  • What they're doing: Wireless network access for doctors and nurses
  • Obstacles overcome: Spotty network performance
  • Expected benefits: Improved patient care, more productive staff

One of the first things that Children's Hospital of Orange County (Calif.) Vice President and CIO Mark Headland did when he started his job two and a half years ago was ask doctors what they wanted most. Remote data access was the near unanimous answer.

Since then, Headland has met that challenge, and the hospital's wireless LAN allows high-speed data transmissions. "I don't think wireless is a question anymore," he says. "If you take your time doing good design, there is no question about the efficacy. The biggest issue for us is the device."

Headland has tried a variety of devices to improve patient care -- the hard part, he says, is finding the right device. In July, nurses will use laptops on carts and tablet PCs to record patient vital signs. Next will be giving doctors Ipaqs that they can use to access the latest patient data and lab results, and to place orders for medication.

The Ipaq project has created some challenges, however. When the doctor enters a patient's room, he hits the sync button, and during the next two and a half minutes, the latest data is delivered through the wireless network from the back-end database. The problem is that synchronizing, especially when more than one doctor is syncing at a time (Headland says it's conceivable that 30 or 40 could need to sync at once), creates a strain on the hospital's servers, sucking CPU power and essentially freezing all the networked computers for about a minute. As a result, Headland hasn't been able to move the Ipaqs into production yet.

The solution requires changes to both the mobile application and the database. Both were initially designed to deliver data all at once, and now have to be redesigned to deliver data piecemeal. These aren't complicated changes, according to Headland, but they do take some tinkering. And because these applications are intended for a hospital, the Ipaqs will need to be tested meticulously to ensure that they won't strain other medical systems. Headland is testing the Ipaqs in a mock environment and plans to go live with the project in March.

The wireless system at the hospital isn't going to have a hard ROI in dollars, but it should improve patient care. Doctors and nurses will be able to make decisions with up-to-the-minute information, and because doctors can place orders for tests in the middle of a visit, patients will receive treatment faster.

OPTIMUS SOLUTIONS - Systems Reseller Finds Right Device After Years of Tinkering

  • Business: Software And Consulting
  • Why wireless: Keeps sales force in contact
  • What they're doing: Wireless access to e-mail and calendar
  • Obstacles overcome: Short battery life, lack of wide area network access
  • Expected benefits: Competitive advantage

Optimus Solutions Director of IT Steve McDonald has been trying wireless projects for years, and until recently, his efforts have resulted in only a long list of failures. "I was caught up in the hype," he acknowledges. Optimus, which resells software and hardware and does consulting work, has a mobile sales force. Like many CIOs, McDonald felt that getting data to these people where they work had great appeal, and so he sought to make data from the company's homegrown CRM system available through wireless. The project wasn't mission critical, however, and wasn't worth the money it would have taken to create a customized device over a private network. So McDonald has spent the past three years experimenting with off-the-shelf technology.

His earlier attempts involved outfitting Palms and Pocket PCs with wireless modems that could access cellular networks. It was easy to make the application accessible to these devices, he says. The hard part was getting the devices to work. For starters, connection speed was limited to 14.4Kbps, which frustrated the sales reps trying to get data. The ones who weren't frustrated by slow connections were annoyed by the bulkiness of the devices. Between the modem and the battery pack necessary to keep them going more than two hours, they looked like and weighed about as much as a brick. Rather than lug around the devices, sales reps simply used their phones to call other reps in the office.

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