Commanding the Wireless Helm

Trailblazers and analysts offer tips for starting and guiding wireless technology projects.

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Outsource or In-house?
One of the first concerns IT managers face is whether to hire third-party developers or try to build wireless applications with existing staff.
Fidelity saw little choice but to move on its own, given the paucity of hardware, software and integrators available in 1998, Ferra says.
However, analysts say there is so much interest in wireless applications that traditional network service providers have begun providing integration services. Best Buy, for example, wanted to accelerate its consumer wireless rollout and decided to do so through a long-term relationship with GWcom Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., Ebel says. Though not well known in the U.S., GWcom has set up wireless trading for 20 Chinese brokerage houses in the past two years.
Analysts say many IT managers neglect taking the seemingly obvious steps of assessing business needs and understanding the limitations of wireless technology before launching a project. For example, one analyst points to a U.S. manufacturing customer who bought wireless LAN hubs but didn't buy enough of them to support his company's office space.
While wireless projects are hot in the business-to-consumer space today, corporate IT departments are "not even close to being prepared" for building business-to-business and business-to-employee wireless systems, says Mark Zohar, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. That's because many IT professionals are skeptical about the security of wireless connections for vital functions, as well as lack of bandwidth and reliability.
But for many organizations, a sales team might need only a daily update on product pricing or inventory levels. That kind of information wouldn't require a constant wireless connection for a pager or smart phone, but could be handled instead by handhelds with local storage capabilities that are connected for just a few minutes a day, Zohar adds.
Analyst Alan Reiter at Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., says standardizing on one device "might not be appropriate" for all companies, which implies that the IT shop could end up managing more than one wireless network.
In fact, Gartner Group predicts that one-third of knowledge workers will rely on three or more devices (i.e., a laptop, a mobile phone and a personal digital assistant) through at least 2003. The range of devices needed will drive technical support costs 70% higher than for those workers who carry just two devices.
Trial Blazers
Wireless pioneers and analysts say trial runs are more critical to the success of wireless rollouts than the applications themselves.
"The trial has to be a statistically meaningful sample, say 10 to 15 users, but not so many you can't manage it," says Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass.
"Run a trial with reasonable expectations," Purdy advises. In addition, managers should build in technological wiggle room for application changes that allow for tremendous wireless bandwidth growth, going from today's 9.2K bit/sec. up to 384K bit/sec. within five years (and much sooner in Japan and Europe).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif., is running a pilot with 15 salespeople who have been using smart phones from Sprint Corp. for three months as a "complete device replacement for their laptops," says Ken Spenchian, CIO at the movie studio.
The pilot could expand to 60 salespeople nationwide, allowing them to use smart phones to check inventory of recently-released videotapes for their retail store customers.
One adjustment MGM's end users have had to make is getting used to a 1.5-by-1.5-in. screen for reading e-mail, "which is not as bad to read as you'd expect," Spenchian says. "At first, we thought the phone would be way too user-nasty" because of screen size and the need to use a small keypad to input data, he says. But user reaction to the devices has been better than expected. Still, MGM is also looking at Palm 7 wireless handhelds with bigger screens because "usability is the biggest concern."
The overriding reason to consider using smart phones, Spenchian says, is that the "phone is the most pervasive device out there." Palm Inc. has about 7 million devices installed worldwide, but there are nearly 100 million wireless phone users in the U.S. alone, analysts say. On top of that, smart phones could integrate many devices in coming years and they're already able to take advantage of voice recognition technology.
Stowaways
Security has also become a key issue with wireless rollouts since most of the devices are small and can be easily lost or stolen. And because they are easy to hide, wireless devices pose a greater threat of grabbing vital data over far-reaching networks than, say, laptop machines.
"The best approach to wireless computing security is to be as paranoid as you can be," says Mathias. "Look for every single hole and ask your staff and vendors how it is being addressed, whether it is the threat of somebody grabbing a signal out of the air or overhearing your voice conversation in an airport."
Because encryption software for wireless applications is immature, Reiter warns users to carefully evaluate product claims. One of the worst security oversights a manager can make, Reiter says, is to assume a wireless network carrier has provided more security than it really has.
For example, some encryption over wireless networks protects only portions of the total pathway. "Encryption should be end-to-end," Reiter says.
Spenchian says the simplest and best technique for securing smart phones is to turn them off. That way, even if a lost phone falls into an outsider's hands, it can't be used without a password, he points out.
At Pacific Coast Building Products, a building materials maker in Sacramento, Calif., workers are using 50 AT&T Corp. smart phones to access e-mail and browse the Internet. The service is supported by a server from Wireless Knowledge LLC in San Diego.
"We would not have gone forward at the start of the project if there weren't guarantees of encryption and password protection," says David Matteoli, a Windows NT administrator at Pacific Coast.
One of the security benefits to using smart phones is that they can be set up as dumb terminals on a network and not store data that might otherwise be accessible, Matteoli says.
Setting Standards
A necessary ingredient for any wireless deployment, say experts, is setting formal policies for use.
These include establishing the same rules for wireless devices as those for laptops or PCs, such as making users realize that corporate data is the property of the company. Gartner analysts recommend that companies provide employees with devices, rather than allow them to use machines they purchase on their own to avoid any conflicts over who owns the data.
Setting personal safety standards for wireless users might also be a good idea, say experts, who advise IT managers to find ways to nudge users to avoid typing messages on a smart phone, pager or handheld while driving or even while walking through a busy warehouse.
Matteoli says a Pacific Coast executive recently got into a car accident while using a smart phone. Fortunately, he was unhurt.
Handing Telecom to IT
Gartner analysts and other experts say IT shops need to control telecommunications policies and operations with the advent of smart phones.
"It would have been much easier setting up our smart-phone service if IT and telecom were one and the same department," Matteoli says. Because the AT&T service includes a $20-per-month data charge separate from the voice service charges, Matteoli had to evaluate how the wireless project at Pacific Coast would be paid for.
"It got very complex very quickly," he says.
Having an IT group control cell phones for voice and data helps provide "economies of scale for purchasing and usage," says Tom O'Connor, director of knowledge management systems at BG Group PLC, a natural gas distributor in Redding, England.
Managing wireless innovations "is not a quick process," O'Connor adds. "It is a really fundamental change in the way businesses work."
Making Savvy B2C Connections
The hottest market for wireless applications is the business-to-consumer space, as evidenced by retailer Best Buy in Minneapolis and The Sabre Group Holdings Inc., a business travel services company in Fort Worth, Texas.
"For us, wireless is mission-critical," says Peter Steven, Sabre's vice president of business and product. Hundreds of business travelers are using smart phones to make instant wireless changes to hotel, airline and car reservations through Sabre, he says. The low costs of enabling wireless transactions are expected to provide Sabre with a quick return on investment, he says. For example, using a voice connection to make a reservation change through a call center is estimated to cost nearly $50; doing so over a wired Web connection costs just $10, while using a smart phone is expected to run Sabre about $5 per transaction, he says.
Some of the headaches Sabre has endured in setting up the wireless system include dealing with various carriers in the U.S. that don't support a standard interface - and probably never will, given competition, says Steven. Sabre has worked with IBM and Finland-based Nokia Corp. to modify the Wireless Application Protocol interface to work with the several U.S. cellular standards.
Best Buy's BestBuy.com division in January started an aggressive plan to roll out wireless online shopping after research revealed that customers were "very interested in using wireless devices," says Mark Ebel, Best Buy's director of digital communications. Ebel says he expects DVDs and software to be among the hottest-selling products after the wireless service launches this month.
Best Buy's wireless initiative is part of a $1 billion e-commerce commitment that included a relaunch of the company's Web site in June.
Smart phones were the logical platform choice for Sabre, since nearly every business traveler has one, Steven says.
Gartner Group analyst Bob Egan says he expects 1 billion wireless phones will be in use worldwide by the end of 2003, at which time about 80% of new phones will be Web-enabled. "Wireless technologies are the growth hormone of e-business," Egan says.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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