This week Robin Bloor's team of analysts consider various types of home networks, the advantages of teleworking and what's often called 2.75G mobile...
The last time I counted I had six wireless networks in my home: Wi-Fi/802.11b for the wireless LAN, DECT for the phone; Bluetooth for the 'little things'; GSM/GPRS for the mobile; RFID for a tagging system and a proprietary system for the car alarm. That's a lot of wireless chatter but all for fairly small data rates.
Even when using the wireless LAN it's rare to really make use of all the bandwidth. Wireless fixes the problem of having to place one device within tethered range of another. Your PC and broadband internet is in the study but you want laptop access from your sofa. When you use the phone you don't want to be tied to a socket in one room. But when you use your PC as a media store for your digital camera images and downloaded MP3 audio files, how do you reach your traditional analogue entertainment systems, the TV and the home hi-fi? What about making a wireless connection between TV, home hi-fi system and PC?
This is what the Linksys division of Cisco Systems want you to be able to do with their new line of Wireless Home products. The first is a wireless multimedia device called the Wireless-B Media Adapter (WMA11B). It's a box that allows your PC to send pictures and sound to your TV without wires.
Now we're talking lots of data and the WMA11B has some serious processing to do. The underlying power is provided by an Intel XScale PXA250 processor. This enables support for the main picture formats, gif, jpeg, tiff, png and windows bitmap, and the power to decode digital music files.
The WMA11B connects on one side to standard audio and video jacks or s-video connector, and the other via a wireless connection or standard wired Ethernet cable. A remote control and simple menus displayed on the TV are all it takes to control it - after all this is a consumer device. What it means is you can simply view your digital camera images on your TV. You can zoom and pan the images while viewing and set up a slideshow. With the audio in place you could also listen to digital music while you view. Easy.
Many have talked of the convergence of the PC with the TV. The truth is they're poles apart. Most often, they're also rooms apart. From a user experience viewpoint it's probably best to keep it that way. Let the PC become the hub or server for digitally stored media in the home. Keep the home entertainment playback systems simple, and employ technology to allow them to communicate simply with the hub. This device seems to fit the bill.
*Manage by results, not by time*
Home working is not new but a recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Group for AT&T indicates organisations expect much more home working in the future. As the survey puts it: "Its time has come."
A bare majority of employees are expected to work from the main office by 2005. Full time telecommuters now make up 6 per cent of US employment and in Western Europe the number of telecommuters is expected to double to 8.7 million by 2005.
There are three reasons why growth is happening now. First, virtual teams are being increasingly used to support distributed global organisations. Second, we are all increasingly comfortable with working electronically using email, instant messaging and shared workspaces. Third, improvements in the price, performance and ease of use of teleworking tools make it feasible to provide every member of staff with a rich set of tools that can do the job.
Of course, teleworking won't happen unless people accept new ways of working. Companies may feel that a home-based work force won't sustain the culture they rightly cherish. Not everyone wants to work at home. People need a rich set of communications tools so that they feel 'in touch' but you can't expect people to stay motivated if they never meet in person. Most teleworking companies have regular in-person meetings and these are very popular.
The watchword is flexibility - allowing people to work how and where they perform best. Management sometimes resists home working because they believe there is too much temptation to bunk off. Managers have to learn how to control a distributed workforce by managing by results rather than by managing their time. This is a necessary skill in any distributed organisation.
A few years ago, a consulting company I worked for was all set to invest in a brand new headquarters to accommodate two merged consultancies. Calculations showed that if we moved to hot desking and only provided enough desks for the people actually in the office, we could use one of the existing offices with a saving of £350,000 a year.
The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) reports that, on any given day, 50 to 70 per cent of all office space is unoccupied - wasting up to $10,000 a year per workspace. Workspace savings can be hard to realise because it's hard to downsize a building.
A more immediate benefit stems from managing the work-life balance. Work-life balance legislation came into force in the UK on 6 April this year and asked employers "to seriously consider" an employee's request for flexible working - especially where they have children of junior school age or with disabilities.
The company benefit of teleworking is improved efficiency. First, there is the saving in travel time. Managers have to discipline themselves to set clear goals and measurable outcomes for teleworking employees rather than acting as timekeepers. This in itself improves productivity. People work better if they have not been subjected to the tender ministrations of Network Rail or the motorway and they can be more effective at home without the many distractions of the office.
If you are still not convinced, then there is the security argument. If the proverbial plane hits the office, you have a lot more chance of getting back on your feet if your staff can work at home.
*Evolution or revolution in mobile data?*
Technology providers typically prefer the fresh start of revolutions or 'paradigm shifts'. The problem with a real paradigm shift is this: It refers to a change in thinking, which typically happens over a generation. Evolutionary change can happen faster but still slower than vendors might like. It takes a year for sufficient tools for the developer community, a year for the first sweep of applications and at least one more year for early adopters to become widespread enough for the new technology to be mass market. Three years, rarely faster.
Of course in three years there's already a new platform or technology out, and the challenge starts again. One such technology is Enhanced Data rate for GSM Evolution (EDGE). The importance of EDGE is often overlooked by the media watchers obsessed with the move towards 3G. EDGE is valuable business for those involved in supplying infrastructure, and from recent reports of momentum in the Americas, EDGE will play an important role for many operators. It's likely that EDGE will play a significant role in the expansion of existing GSM/GPRS networks and in complementing higher performance WCDMA 3G networks when they arrive. There are more than 30 operators across the Americas who have announced their deployment of EDGE technology over the next few years.
This is great news for companies like Ericsson who have been struggling with a telecoms infrastructure market where the future was looking too expensive for operators with spectrum bid debts. Ericsson was the first vendor to supply commercial EDGE infrastructure, and from 1995, Ericsson's GSM macro radio base stations have been very easy to upgrade to EDGE. Adding a new transceiver and a software upgrade is all it takes. Operators can enhance their existing network without impacting existing customers or making big changes to their radio infrastructure.
Third generation mobile telephony has attracted much of the media speculation and comment. However there is an evolution happening in the meantime. It will make money for the infrastructure suppliers but importantly allows operators to enhance their existing investment with new data services. It might not be the multimedia mobile cyberspace future long promoted but it might offer something we're all willing to pay for while mobile communications evolves at a pace the industry can cope with.
Bloor Research is a leading independent analyst organisation in Europe. You can find out more at www.bloor-research.com or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org