The wireless family

Does wireless technology provide freedom to work wherever and whenever, or deprive you of your freedom from work?

commentary Does wireless technology provide freedom to work wherever and whenever, or deprive you of your freedom from work?

A strange world we live in: Mark Latham has successfully shifted "family friendly" lexicon into the forefront of politics. Announcing more than AU$30 million over four years on mentoring programs, Latham's tagline is of "Making every day Father's Day". Meanwhile, back in the corporate world the demand for handheld PDAs and wireless connectivity keeps increasing, driven by our need to be in contact, 24x7.

After almost three years of flat growth, the PDA market has increased 12 percent in the second quarter of 2004 compared to a year ago. This has been driven by corporate demand for devices with e-mail and wireless capabilities, in particular Research in Motion's BlackBerry which has seen a 289 percent increase in shipments in Q2 this year (versus Q2 2003).

In Australia the Smart Handheld Device (SHD) market increased 21.5 percent over Q1 in unit shipments, mostly a result of growth in converged devices. Analysts see the BlackBerry leading the corporate charge in terms of growth (HP is the current leader in total sales, while the Palm OS has narrowly regained the lead in worldwide market share) and "smart phones" are the growth engine in the otherwise flat consumer PDA market.

The proliferation of wireless networking -- increasingly a standard feature of notebooks and strongly promoted by Intel -- is also changing the mobile computing landscape. More "hotspots" appear daily, and the biggest challenge to take-up of this technology is not security, but the number of different service providers with their own billing platforms. As consolidation leads to a fewer number of players offering broader coverage and a single monthly bill, it will be even easier to take advantage of the ability to access e-mail, the corporate network, or wireless data services from anywhere. Soon the office really will be with us, no matter where we are.

Of course, this technology and constant contactability enables us to spend more time away from the office. Intel helpfully states in its Ten Ways Unwiring Can Change Your Life, that you can "stay better connected with family and friends". Even better, if you "forget a birthday while on the road, you can just send an Amazon gift card electronically". Now that would make Latham proud. Forgot your son's birthday while in transit at LAX? Lucky you've got a Centrino notebook with wireless Internet connection. Not only can you send an e-card, you might even be able to videoconference into the birthday party (time permitting).

When you're not travelling, you can leave the office a bit early. Maybe work from home and take advantage of more flexible hours. Only problem is, a recent survey in the Australian Financial Review reported that 75 percent of managers were unwilling to let employees work from home, despite requests for this. Managers don't trust people to work from home and when they do, colleagues gossip about how slack they are (71 percent of remote workers face criticism from co-workers that they're not pulling their weight.

At least you can work alongside the family at home, now that "every room in your house is your office". You can soak up the sun while checking your e-mail -- your whole house and yard has now become your office. Or be more productive by answering a few e-mails while watching your favourite TV show. Now that's getting more family friendly. I'm starting to visualize a Labor policy that has no parent living without a wireless connection by 2007.

For all the capabilities of unwiring to add flexibility to our lives, evidence suggests that social change hasn't kept pace with the technology. Marketing campaigns are effectively based on being able to get more work done, when you're not at work... The promise of better work/life balance is there, but the outcome is longer working hours, rather than greater productivity.

So what's your idea of a perfect holiday? A hotel with broadband connections in every room, wireless hotspot by the pool and a business centre with fax facilities (personally, I stand guilty as charged on this one). Or a remote retreat, where you're lucky to pick up a faint Telstra signal on the mobile and even if you could get a dial-up connection, there's no power... ?

Oliver Descoeudres is marketing manager at network IP/Internet network infrastructure builder and solutions provider NetStar Australia. He can be contacted at or on 02 9805 9759.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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