Wireless Net: Newest nuisance?

Critics say wireless Internet access is becoming a bigger annoyance than cell phones or pagers. These devices chirp, ping and suck attention from meetings, sparking a backlash.
Written by Rachel Konrad, Contributor on
Farhad Mohit is a busy executive who doesn't have time for people who waste his time.

So instead of suffering through inane PowerPoint presentations at a recent Internet industry conference, the chairman of Los Angeles-based BizRate.com flipped open his laptop and began sending emails to colleagues at the office. Thanks to wireless Internet access throughout the conference area, Mohit paid attention when speakers interested him--and got real work done when they didn't.

"It's unbelievably helpful to be able to do email at a conference," Mohit said. "Before wireless, I would have had to go back to my room--and then I'd probably miss the next speaker. Now, when these guys go into sales-pitch mode, I tune 'em out."

That, wireless critics say, is precisely the problem. Who can concentrate on what's going on at the speaker's podium when you can just as easily have a real-time chat with your girlfriend or knock off a few work-related emails without leaving the conference room?

From etiquette experts to senior executives at Microsoft, a growing number of people say wireless Internet access is becoming an annoyance--a technology that could potentially become more annoying than cell phones or pagers. They point to the alarming number of attendants at technology conferences and even internal office meetings who ignore speakers to focus on personal email or Web surfing.

They also bemoan the increasing din of chirps, pings and knocks that attendants' computers make when they receive email or instant messages. They say the annoyance could soon spark restaurants and conference halls to clamp down on laptops, forbidding people from bringing them inside or kicking out offenders if they forget to turn off the volume.

At the Industry Standard Internet Summit last week in Carlsbad, California, attendants discerned a direct correlation between the quality of the speaker's presentation and the number of noises--from Apple's "Wild Eep" and Microsoft "tada" to the shrill "knock! knock! knock!" of Yahoo Instant Messenger: Whenever the speech got boring, the computerized noise level increased dramatically.

"Outrageous" and "rude"
The babel has already reached distraction level, critics say. Signs typically remind conference attendants to turn off cell phones and put pagers on vibrate mode, but they rarely instruct attendants to mute laptops.

"It's outrageous. It's really rude," Sue Fox, founder and president of Los Gatos, California-based Etiquette Survival, said of noisy notebooks. Author of "Business Etiquette for Dummies", Fox counsels many Silicon Valley executives about proper manners, and paying attention to the speaker is one of her top priorities.

"It's the same as talking on your cell phone or talking to your neighbor when someone's giving a speech. Maybe it's boring, but that's no excuse," Fox said. "If someone is talking or giving a presentation, it's not the time to have your laptop open--just as it's not appropriate to be talking on your cell phone."

Loquacious laptops don't pique etiquette experts exclusively. Corporations are increasingly calling for a mass muting of the machines.

When the Four Seasons brought its technology managers to Florida for a meeting in June, meeting coordinators for the Toronto-based luxury resort chain specifically asked workers to keep their laptops in their hotel rooms. The request highlighted notebooks' potential for distraction, seeing as it came during a meeting about the July introduction of Wi-Fi at all 56 resorts worldwide.

Make no mistake: These silicon silencers aren't denying that the technology is powerful--possibly the next "killer app" that could boost office efficiency and revolutionize the workplace. They know they'd be fighting a losing battle if they tried to turn the rising tide of wireless.

From the San Francisco International Airport to Starbucks Coffee, consumer-oriented businesses are trying to cater to business travelers and others who require 24-hour, high-speed connections, without the flakiness and phone charges of dial-up access. Meanwhile, computer manufacturers are racing to install laptops with integrated wireless capabilities. Most major technology conferences, from the Internet Summit last week to the CeBit spring trade fair in Hanover, Germany, offer wireless Internet access.

But the distraction issue has emerged as one of the first social challenges that wireless faces as it tries to gain widespread acceptance--not unlike the battle over ringing cell phones in the early- to mid-1990s. Back then, the increasingly ubiquitous gadgets became a flashpoint pitting social gabbers and power brokers against people yearning for a quiet dinner, subway commute or bathroom break.

The loud laptop could become an even bigger cultural battle. Unlike the simple cell phone, notebooks can transmit a huge variety of sounds--and many Web sites offer audio downloads ranging from rap to dolphin screeches.

The issue has even reared its head at Microsoft, an ardent supporter of so-called Wi-Fi technology. Wi-Fi is the wireless Internet access system based on the technical standard 802.11B, which requires the installation of a small radio "hot spot" connected to the Internet via a broadband connection. The radio extends the wire line and connects with any mobile devices equipped with mini-radios in PC cards. Products that use such technology are called Wi-Fi, short for "wireless fidelity".

At Microsoft's Redmond, Washington-based campus, about 10,000 workers have the ability to tap into wireless Internet access. At any given time, about 3,500 Microsoft employees are sending email or surfing the Web via Wi-Fi, said Mike Edwards, general manager of infrastructure engineering at Microsoft.

Edwards said that the typical person with Wi-Fi can boost daily productivity as much as one and a half hours per day. But he also noted that it's not uncommon for 10 people in a meeting of 20 to 25 workers to be buried in their laptops, not paying full attention to the presentation or meeting coordinator.

Edwards said that they're "multi-tasking", but some executives at other technology companies have determined that it's tough to pay attention to both a speaker and a constant stream of incoming email. At Compaq Computer and Dell Computer, for instance, midlevel managers say, it's not uncommon for meeting coordinators to ask attendants to keep their laptops folded and turned off.

"What's the point of having a meeting if half the people are doing email?" asked one Dell manager, who requested anonymity. "If you're doing email, you probably shouldn't be attending the meeting in the first place."

C Brian Grimm, spokesman for Wilmington, N.C.-based Wave Communications, believes it will only be two or three years before all major hotels and conference halls are Wi-Fi-enabled. When taking business trips, he tries to stay in only those hotels that offer wireless access.

But he realizes that the technology will dramatically change the way people perceive conferences--as it already has done in the technology sector. It could force speakers to be more enthusiastic, compelling and interesting--or else suffer the fate of an audience buried in their laptops, he said. That's not necessarily a bad thing, he noted.

"Go to a conference without Wi-Fi. Everyone's listening to the speaker. Go to a conference with Wi-Fi. Everyone's sending email and working if it's boring," said Grimm, who has attended his share of sleeper conventions.

"It's an interesting phenomenon. Pretty soon, it's going to be, 'This conference bites because you don't have wireless LANs,'" Grimm said. "For better or worse, people love to be in constant communication."

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