Quocirca's Straight Talking: Wireless - who's ready to commit?

Anyone... anyone?

Anyone... anyone?

Businesses say they're excited about rolling out wireless but few large scale deployments have taken place. Quocirca's Dale Vile explains what's holding them back and how we can move forward.

Wireless has to be one of the hottest topics in the technology arena at the moment. The level of vendor hype is high and the number of column inches appearing in the press is significant. It would be easy to come away with the impression that the famed 'tipping point' has been reached and that everyone is doing it. The reality, however, is that mainstream corporate commitment to wireless technologies is still patchy.

When trying to assess the level of commitment, we need to be careful that we know exactly what we mean by wireless. Wireless LAN adoption in the office, for example, has very little to do with providing remote access into corporate systems for mobile users in the field. The first is under the complete control of the internal IT department and will be taken care of as a natural part of IT infrastructure evolution. The second is much more complex, invariably involving at least one service provider and reliance on multiple public access networks that are inherently insecure.

Despite the challenges, interest amongst corporations in using wireless for remote access has been extremely high and research that Quocirca has conducted in this space over the past two to three years has consistently uncovered a lot of good intentions. The attraction is the prospect of better communication, empowerment of mobile users, time savings for professionals and a range of other benefits to do with extending access to corporate systems out into the field.

Not surprisingly, the potential advantages have encouraged many organisations to set up trials and pilots of wireless solutions. Indeed, we estimate from our research that over half of Europe's larger corporations have now gained some initial practical experience through such activity.

Having got off to a good start, however, the vast majority of organisations that have piloted wireless remote access have not yet followed through with large scale commitments. Some pilots have solidified into small scale production systems but deployments involving more than a few tens of users are extremely rare. Those that do exist are highly publicised as reference sites by the supplier community but they are not representative of activity across the board.

We could speculate that organisations have not yet had a chance to properly evaluate the results of their initial activities, but this is generally not the case. Quocirca research has tracked significant pilot activity since the fourth quarter of 2002, meaning many organisations have had adequate time to assess their experiences.

Understanding what has been holding up progress is therefore a key issue for both the mobile industry and customers who at the moment are not capitalising on their initial investment to exploit the potential of wireless remote access more fully.

Part of the problem lies with the complexity and instability of the mobile technology and service provision landscape. When many organisations first started looking at wireless remote access, the only real connectivity choice was GPRS, a relatively low bandwidth cellular option. Today, there are higher bandwidth options available in the form of Wi-Fi hot spot services and 3G cellular, but questions about coverage, quality of service, security and who will actually deliver each type of service have led to uncertainties that have understandably undermined any willingness to make significant commitments. Similar issues have arisen from the diversity and rapid turnover of technology in the device space.

The bottom line is that even organisations that have wanted to scale up have found it difficult to make safe decisions on which technologies and services to commit to.

The supplier community has started to address some of these issues by pulling together complete end-to-end solutions such as those based on the wireless platform and BlackBerry devices from Research in Motion (RIM). Mobile operators are also looking to provide coherent multi-network access services that include GPRS, Wi-Fi and 3G in a single offering, with intelligent 'dashboards' for laptop users that make network selection easy or even automatic. Such approaches go some way towards protecting customers from the complexities and uncertainties of wireless deployment.

But providing the solutions needed by corporate customers to break through the scale-up barrier rely on suppliers such as mobile operators, IT vendors and system integrators working together maturely. This is beginning to happen, but there is still a lot of squabbling over who owns which part of the equation and how the spoils are divided up. From a customer perspective, we suggest that the problems of complexity and rapid change are bounced firmly back into the supplier court. It should not be an IT department's problem to figure out the interplay between GPRS, 3G, Wi-Fi and any other access technology that comes along in the future, for example - that issue should be owned by the service provider.

Having said this, customers need to do some things differently too. Many wireless pilots were set up on the basis of 'gut feel', which is usually not good enough to justify the investment in broader rollout. One of the challenges here, especially for those putting the emphasis on mobile email, is translating the relatively soft benefits we mentioned earlier into a firm business case. The more hard metrics can be captured from pilots the better, but this needs to be built into the project from the beginning.

Similarly, pilots ideally need to be designed to explore the operational issues such as security, support, device management and other aspects of systems administration and maintenance. We have encountered many initiatives that have stalled because of uncertainties in these areas, even though feedback from users and the business after the pilot has been very positive.

If we take a step back, it will be clear from this discussion that both customers and suppliers have been on an extremely steep learning curve with wireless. Nevertheless, progress is being made and provided we are realistic in our expectations, we can look forward to more announcements of large scale wireless projects as we move from 2004 into 2005.

Much of the discussion in this article is based on the findings of a recent Quocirca study looking at the issues associated with scaling up wireless deployments. A report summarising the findings entitled "Enterprise Wireless Update - Scaling it Up" is available free of charge and may be requested at http://www.quocirca.com/report_entwir.htm