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Wireless deals could free corporate info

Security issues and working with IT departments are two of the biddgest roadblocks to the success of wireless access to intranets. That is about to change as wireless devices become more and more widespread.

For years, wireless mobile workers have juggled multiple e-mail accounts because they can't access corporate e-mail or information. That could soon change.

As promised late last year, Ericsson and Microsoft have consummated the creation of a joint venture company aimed at delivering solutions for operators to enable wireless e-mail access for corporate and consumer customers. Compaq Computer and Nokia have also teamed up, but they will sell their platform to enterprise customers that can then create services allowing employees to access their intranets. In the past, security problems hampered the rollout of such services.

"More of these announcements can be expected over the next 18 months. They have to happen now to get the systems implemented before higher-speed networks are up," said Larry Swasey, senior vice president of communications research at Allied Business Intelligence.

These new players believe the hurdles to enabling remote wireless access of corporate information may be disappearing. In November 1998, Microsoft and Qualcomm formed a joint venture, Wireless Knowledge, that experienced early delays in service availability.

Critics suggested that delays may have occurred because Wireless Knowledge hit a brick wall when working with corporate information technology (IT) managers to bypass firewalls. Early this year, the venture changed its tune by marketing server software directly to enterprises, rather than targeting wireless operators with a hosted solution.

The change in direction may have worked for Wireless Knowledge, which scored a major coup earlier this month when Sprint PCS said its nationwide sales force will market the Wireless Knowledge product to enterprises, and that Sprint PCS is using the product internally.

What's next?

Security issues and working with IT departments are two of the biggest roadblocks to the success of wireless access to intranets, observers said.

"Once you get beyond the IT guys, the technology challenge is fairly well-known," said Justin Webb, chief strategist at ViAir, a provider of hosted services, including wireless access to corporate e-mail. As IT managers recognize the productivity possibilities of wireless access, they are growing more open to the idea, he said.

In addition, vendors continue to develop security solutions.

"Once people start respecting the level of security provided by VPNs [virtual private networks] and the security offered through third-party providers, then the issue of whether it's wireless or not is moot," said Ahmed Al-Hayderi, vice president of business development at Nokia's Internet communications group.

Remote access to corporate information is widely available today, typically via laptops and dial-up connections. As wireless devices become as widespread as laptops within the enterprise, and security solutions become more credible, wireless access should become more accepted by corporations, observers said.

The introduction of higher wireless data speeds could also spur the market for wireless corporate access services. "The obstacles to date have been lack of networks with high-speed access and security," Swasey said.

Companies offering enabling technologies are approaching the market from different angles, which all may prove successful, industry executives said. Compaq, Nokia and Wireless Knowledge market products to the enterprise, while the Ericsson-Microsoft joint venture offers products to wireless operators. ViAir offers services on a hosted basis.

"I don't think one will dominate," Swasey said. Each approach will likely appeal to the different needs of customers, he said.