'Quick, Get Me Wireless'

Companies that want to "get in quick" with a wireless project are turning to wireless application service providers, or WASPs, which promise to host applications and take the hassles out of technology selection and deployment.

Of course, that depends on the WASPs staying in business long enough to do so. It's a new, unproven business model, and analysts predict that some WASPs will fail.

"WASPs are an untested concept on top of an untested concept. That's a tough thing to accept, much less manage," says Blaise Stephanus, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates Inc. in Boulder, Colo.

So IT managers have to weigh the possibly fleeting nature of WASPs against the benefits. "The greatest advantage is their expertise," says Stephanus. "Wireless changes so rapidly, the burden of keeping up with the latest technology is like trying to hit a moving target. Wireless is the WASPs' central focus, so they understand all of its seemingly infinite tentacles."

That's what appealed to Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc. UPS had already developed application programming interfaces (API) in-house to link its legacy tracking systems to business customers, such as retailers that wanted to provide their customers with order-status information. When UPS decided to offer customers shipment tracking as part of a mobile information services package, it hired Air2Web Inc., a WASP in Atlanta. The company used the existing APIs to link applications to multiple types of wireless networks from different providers and configure them for a range of devices.

"Speed to market, customer satisfaction and dealing with the issues of a wireless network environment were our main concerns for choosing a WASP," says Robert Conner, senior director of interactive marketing at UPS.

"Our core competency is delivering packages, and we never want to lose sight of that," Conner explains. "The learning curve [for wireless] was too stiff, and the technology is too vast. I needed an expert to do this for me. Air2Web had the expertise, and they deployed in four months."

Other WASPs include 2Roam Inc. in Redwood City, Calif.; AlterEgo Networks Inc., also in Redwood City; Broadbeam Corp. in Princeton, N.J.; and GoAmerica Inc. in Hackensack, N.J.

In essence, WASPs host and manage wireless applications and leverage them across multiple clients to reduce costs. They can deploy the software, hardware, security and networks faster (and often cheaper) than most corporate IT departments. The devices, languages and applications are so diverse, individual companies would have to maintain a large, skilled staff to support these services in-house.

Bidwell & Co., a discount brokerage in Portland, Ore., asked 2Roam to write a wireless Web interface so that customers with wireless handheld devices could use Bidwell's Web site for investment research, account information, stock quotes and real-time stock trades. "We wanted to avoid having to build for, test, qualify and upgrade the software for an extensive range of wireless devices," says Jay S. Hemmady, the firm's vice president of technology. "We didn't want to deal with a wide range of carriers, and [by using] 2Roam, we avoided the need to keep up with this fast-moving technology."

Costs vary by application. WASPs could charge, say, $250,000 upfront to set up a very complex application, plus monthly fees for their service. But they can also offer limited services for fees of $50 to $100 per month per user.

And WASPs can work quickly. ViaFone Inc. in Brisbane, Calif., asserts that it built a wireless Web application for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Internet shopping service MySimon Inc. in just four weeks. ViaFone says it also delivered a wireless Web project for Fort Washington, Pa.-based CDnow Inc. (a unit of Germany-based Bertelsmann AG) in 14 weeks.

The WASP applications of most immediate interest to corporations include wireless e-mail and scheduling, sales force automation and inventory access, customer service and product support, and field service automation. Emergency communications systems for fire, police or medical facilities are other prime markets. All of these applications are primarily text-driven, so they don't require a lot of bandwidth.

Mike Logghe, information systems manager for the government of Los Alamos County in New Mexico, managed the wireless communications systems used by authorities fighting the Cerro Grande fire in May of last year. "With only a small shop, we had limited resources; there was no way we could handle it alone," he says. So Logghe turned to Integrity Networking Systems Inc., an Albuquerque, N.M.-based WASP, for voice and data communications links among the fire crews, police and medical teams within a seven-square-mile area.

"Phone lines were overloaded because of the fire, but we still functioned," Logghe says. "Companies like US West and others donated cell phones for the crisis, and in just a few weeks, we were all connected. The fire burned over 50,000 acres, and we had no injuries. The wireless communications were critical to the operation."

Of course, managing a WASP requires oversight and a detailed service-level agreement. But Larry Swasey, an analyst at Allied Business Intelligence Inc. in Oyster Bay, N.Y., says it isn't a big chore. "They manage themselves," he says. "All they need from their clients is trust, and that's not an easy thing for corporate IT managers to just hand over."

"I've had no problems managing the WASPs," says Logghe. "They have been very responsive, and if they all treat their customers like Integrity Networking has treated us, yes, the wireless providers will do well."

But analysts say the advantages of using a WASP may be short-lived. Once the state of wireless technologies becomes less complex and more standardized, some of the WASP advantage may evaporate.

Tim Scannell, an analyst at Mountain View, Calif.-based Mobile Insights Inc., predicts that the need for WASPs will diminish in two years. "It's a fast, get-it-now, do-it-now industry, and once it's standardized, the question will be, Who owns the service? Not the WASPs," he says.

Scannell and other analysts advise users to first explore the wireless capabilities of their current ASPs and begin with smaller, noncritical applications. "Keep the big applications in-house for now," Scannell warns. "Wireless is just not ready for mission-critical applications yet. Wireless is not a pleasant experience. It is slow, text-based and requires too much up- and download time."

Some WASPs are already shifting their business models, moving from hosting to selling their technology as licensed server products. Meanwhile, giants such as IBM, Oracle Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are lumbering into the wireless field.

"At this early point in the wireless application market, change is the only consistent factor," says Jennifer DiMarzio, an analyst at Summit Strategies Inc. in Boston. "The winners, losers and gorillas of wireless computing have not yet emerged, making it an exciting, if confusing, space to track."

Sartain is a freelance writer in Ogden, Utah.

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Is a WASP in Your Future?

A primer for companies con-sidering working with ASPs:

Pros
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Connectivity for multiple protocols and devices
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Fast deployment
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Wireless-savvy IT staffers
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Can evolve as the wireless industry evolves
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Frees corporate IT staff for other projects
Cons
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Not ready for large, mission-critical applications
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Life span uncertain; could go bankrupt
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Has to learn the client’s industry
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IT managers lose some control
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IT staff can’t support application if WASP fails
Tips for using a WASP
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Research the company and check references and staff qualifications
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Get a detailed service-level agreement
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Start with a small pilot project
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Investigate upgrade, scalability and integration issues
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Negotiate costs
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Select two IT staffers to monitor the WASP
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Have a backup plan
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Determine exit strategies
Related:

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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