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How to unwire your business

Never mind that service providers have yet to agree on a standard. Wireless LANs can make your employees more productive.
Written by Richard Shim, Contributor and  Valerie Rice, Contributor
Never mind that service providers have yet to agree on a standard. Wireless LANs can make your employees more productive.

Greg Boyd couldn't seem to get technology to be his friend. At the office, he was rarely able to send a fax, because visiting colleagues would unplug the phone line from the fax outside his door and connect their notebooks to download e-mail. Few of them reconnected the fax when they were done.

While traveling, he could only log on reliably in his hotel room, forcing him to stay up late answering e-mail. The last straw came when a customer asked Boyd, vice president of sales and marketing for wireless chip maker Intersil of Irvine, California, to describe the firm's wireless network. "It was embarrassing," he says, "to admit we didn't have one."

Now Intersil is fully unwired, meaning its employees remain connected while moving from office to office, or state to state. They tap into the corporate network from airport lounges and hotel lobbies. And since Boyd doesn't need phone-line access to plow through his e-mail, he's more productive. Boyd, in fact, is in wireless heaven. "Let's just say you'd have to pry it from my cold, dead hands, if you tried to take it away," he says.

Boyd feels the elation of the recently converted. And why not? After years of being chained to his company's limited network connections, he and thousands like him find that being untethered but always in touch changes the way they do business.

In recent years, cell phones have become pervasive enough to stir up some backlash regarding where not to use them, but wireless data transmission is new to most businesses. Nonetheless, widespread access to wireless data will come quickly, and when it arrives, businesses will see improved productivity--as well as lower support and maintenance costs for company networks. Although it's difficult to compare the costs of a hardwired network to a wireless one, wireless equipment, like cards that plug into notebooks, are generally more expensive. But experts say the price difference is quickly offset by the lower cost of maintaining the network.

Of course, going wireless isn't necessarily easy or quick. In fact, simply choosing among the conflicting standards, products, and features can give even hardened technophiles a headache. Some industry watchers also claim that current products, especially those based on cell-phone standards (such as wireless PDAs) won't change business fundamentally. According to analyst Matt Sargent, of research firm ARS in La Jolla, California, "They're just going to let people do what they normally do a little bit easier."

For many companies, making business life a little easier is enough. Others plan to wait for the next generation of products to appear, which will happen over the next couple of years. These devices will deliver high-speed access to company networks and the Internet, anytime, anywhere.

Ultimately, businesses will utilize nationwide wireless networks and "must-have" services, says Martin Cooper, who helped invent the cell phone and is now CEO of startup ArrayComm, a high-speed wireless communications company in San Jose, California. But first, he says, "The industry needs to focus on problems customers have with wireless right now, and solve them. Doing this means offering more compelling services." Cooper adds: "I'm talking about delivering a myriad of applications, services, and content."

Of course, Intersil's Boyd has no interest in returning to the dark ages of mobile computing, now that he can work as easily in his company's Florida offices as in its California facilities. The benefits to Intersil of a wireless infrastructure go far beyond its traveling sales force. For example, when Intersil recently expanded its San Jose facility, it avoided the substantial cost and time involved in buying new equipment, installing it, and wiring up a new office. The company simply picked up its network equipment, access points, and employees, and set them up in the new location.

"In a wired office," says Boyd, "we would have sent in an IT guy to connect the office and set individuals up, which would have meant downtime for the IT guy, the employees, and everyone who counted on those employees. This way, we just moved in the furniture and people, and were up and running."

Boyd says his PC card, which plugs into his notebook and provides access to all the company's wireless LANs, is the key to the wireless kingdom outside his office. Thanks to wireless accommodations now provided by some airports and hotels, Boyd can connect from the American Airlines' Admirals Clubs in Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Boston, Miami, and New York. Even lobbies and conference rooms in some Hilton and Sheraton hotels are set up for wireless access.

At this point, only about 30 percent of Intersil's workforce uses wireless access, as the company limits access to folks who travel for a living. And the process certainly hasn't been without hiccups. But most of the early issues, such as a confusing logon interface, have been ironed out. Now, every Intersil office has a wireless LAN, including the company's facility in Taipei, Taiwan.

At Texas Instruments, meanwhile, wireless networks are helping tied-to-the-office engineers at its chipset plant in Santa Rosa, California. Before a wireless network was ever installed at TI, engineers seldom worked outside their cubes, says Michael Hogan, general manager of TI's chipset operation. Now, workers take their computers and other devices to conference rooms, other people's offices--even the break room. That's caused a fundamental shift in thinking, says Hogan. "It's changed the way people work. Now they can share, update, and collaborate."

TI employees can now interact and use their PCs at the same time. In fact, Hogan is seeing the change first hand. Drafting a business plan recently with coworkers, each equipped with a computer and a wireless connection, keyboards were clicking like data crickets. Suddenly spreadsheets were changed, growth rates adjusted--and the resulting plan emerged almost organically.

Hogan was stunned at how easy it all was--and how seductive. "The big difference is you no longer have to be in one place to connect, which may not seem like much. But now, you can be sitting in a meeting that veers in a new direction--and instantly call up information to give substance to a new idea or proposal. Everything gets easier."

And cheaper. Hogan says one of the great myths about wireless is that it's expensive. Despite several competing standards and the higher cost of items such as adapter cards, Hogan says that savings tend to come immediately, because technicians aren't required onsite for maintenance or to assist people in relocating offices. "It's just less expensive to maintain," he says.

The morning coffee
Money was certainly at issue in Starbucks's decision to go wireless. But in this case, the company, which is providing the technology for both customers and employees, saw it as an opportunity to make money.

It's no great surprise that Starbucks does 50 percent of its business in the mornings. That means long lines during prime time, and some folks simply walk away. To speed things up, Starbucks is planning to provide customers with "stored value" cards, similar to gift certificates. Customers buy a card, then have it swiped and debited with each purchase. The service should get started later this year in some 300 stores, clustered mostly in Dallas, San Francisco, and Seattle. This wireless venture is the result of a partnership between Starbucks, Compaq, and Microsoft. All told, Compaq is investing $100 million in equipping the coffee stores over a five-year period.

Wireless is a perfect fit for Starbucks and its tech-savvy customers. "There is a close connection between coffee and technology," says Darren Huston, senior vice president of new ventures for Starbucks. In fact, 90 percent of its customers are on the Net. "Starbucks is in the travel path for a lot of business people," adds Huston.

Many of these customers like to work on notebook PCs as they down coffee and pastries. Adding wireless Web access will be a nice image boost with these folks--and with the help of Compaq and Microsoft, the coffee retailer won't foot much of the bill for wireless access at its 4,000 stores around the globe.

Wireless will also let the company's barristas (coffee servers) be trained online, using streaming video. Another plus: Store managers will use the technology to schedule and communicate with the home office. There's also the chance to bring in and retain new customers. "We really want to see how much more 'sticky' the Starbucks customer can become," says Huston.

California utility company Sempra Energy Solutions has a scheduling problem of its own, one it hopes wireless technology will help solve. In addition to meeting the energy needs of several smaller customers, Sempra manages two huge "users"--the Century City commercial development in West Los Angeles and the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, which together take up more than 23 million square feet. Between processing energy for these sites and juggling the management of things like air conditioning, heating, and boilers, the company has its hands full. "We try to be as efficient as possible, especially given the tough power situation," says Jim Cherri, vice president of marketing. "The use of wireless technology should not only help us to do this--it should also help prevent bigger problems."

When the company deploys handheld wireless devices later this year, technicians will get real-time information that should allow them to act faster and cut costs. Currently, Sempra must have technicians onsite to react to situations. But once the wireless devices are in use, technicians will be able to monitor and control facilities from hundreds of miles away. Cherri believes this will make the process predictive rather than reactive, allowing problems to be stopped before they occur. The company will save both money and energy.

OTG Software of Bethesda, Maryland, was simply trying to save its sanity when it turned to wireless technology. Before its initial public offering last year, the 300-person outfit communicated using a mishmash of pagers, cell phones, and regular phones. But the pressures of becoming a public company made those options inefficient. The solution--to standardize on wireless pagers and a wireless LAN--has made a big difference in day-to-day decision-making, especially by making it easier for key personnel to remain in touch.

"Much to the chagrin of our families," says Bill Caple, executive vice president and chief operating officer for OTG, "the wireless Net enables us to remain 'engaged' with our work most of our waking hours during the business week-and hardly a day goes by on the weekend that I fail to engage in some sort of business e-mail activity."

Although Caple says wireless paging means he spends more time every day communicating with colleagues, the new system reduces stress and saves time by enabling employees to solve problems more quickly. It's also less invasive to receive a page and respond via e-mail than it is to handle a direct cell-phone call. "And in the off hours," he adds, "the e-mail discussions can definitely be on the lighter side." London-based software developer Red-M is trying to make airport check-ins a lighter experience. Red-M is developing Bluetooth-based information services that follow you wherever you go, alerting nearby computer systems of your arrival and departure.

"Imagine walking into an airport terminal and being able to check in as you walk to the gate," says Simon Gawne, vice president of marketing and business development at Red-M. "At the office, calls can be forwarded to you wherever you are--to a conference room or to your cell phone, if you're outside the building." Red-M's technology will be available by the end of the year.



As promising as all this sounds, wireless technology is still in its infancy--and the growing pains are evident. Ask around and you'll hear people grumble about their wireless experiences, whether it's cell-phone dropouts or incompatible wireless data providers. The technology is hindered by limited coverage, inconsistent service, a smorgasbord of competing standards, and a dearth of compelling content. The result has been slower-than-expected adoption in the United States.

Part of the confusion derives from the fact that wireless systems evolved to meet varying and fairly distinct needs. In evolving to meet new ones, the standards are starting to overlap and contend.

Cell phones were developed for voice communications. Though they've since begun to handle data, such transmissions are slow. Faster rates and greater capabilities will require expensive new equipment and reallocation of portions of the radio spectrum now used by organizations such as the U.S. military. Wireless networks, likewise, are squeezed into parts of the spectrum already in use by the latest wireless phones, Bluetooth devices, and microwave ovens. To achieve higher speeds, wireless LANs will also require new frequencies.

These evolving wireless systems pose a challenge: How can businesses acquire useful capabilities now without being saddled by obsolete equipment in the future? To avoid that trap, potential purchasers must protect their wireless investments by considering what's to come.

One of the options intended to speed up cell phones barely able to fill their tiny screens with text is the so-called third-generation (3G) phone standard. The 3G standard is designed to offer high-speed access and "always on" mobile Internet links. Current plans call for transmission rates up to 2mbps by 2003, fast enough to handle videoconferencing and distribution of movies and music.

However, the 3G specification isn't final, and not all countries will support exactly the same specifications--which will probably lead to incompatibilities. Widespread availability of 3G is two to three years away in the United States, though in Europe and Asia, 3G could be up and running within 12 months.

Among wireless local-area networks, the reigning standard is IEEE 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi. This open standard connects notebook PCs and PDAs to networks via an access point. Connections over Wi-Fi can reach sprightly speeds of 11mbps--about seven times faster than T1 connections.

The beauty of Wi-Fi lies in its easy set-up and inexpensive maintenance. Wi-Fi is comparable in speed to many Ethernet LANs now in use, though the 100-meter maximum range to an access point requires planning--especially since interference from walls or electronic devices can reduce the range even further.

Wi-Fi is so promising that notebook makers Apple, Dell, and Toshiba plan to build the technology into their systems by the end of this year. Wi-Fi prices are also likely to fall across the board this year, as both supply and demand increase. All told, Newton, Massachusetts-based research firm Cahners In-Stat Group expects some 10 million Wi-Fi products to ship in 2001. Wi-Fi is not the only wireless network game in town: Targeted at consumers, HomeRF allows laptop users to roam around the home while surfing the Web--and to connect their computers, printers, and peripherals to the network. But despite backing by Motorola and Hewlett-Packard, HomeRF hasn't made a big impact in the business market--and the recent defection of Intel to Wi-Fi raises questions about its future.

A newer standard, confusingly called 802.11a, promises data rates up to 54mbps. Though it won't be finished until the end of the year, 802.11a is gaining attention from many consumer electronics companies, which see it as the ideal channel for streaming content. Expect to see it incorporated into Internet-ready televisions, stereos, and other consumer-electronics equipment beginning next year. However, the new standard is incompatible with Wi-Fi and HomeRF.

Then there's Bluetooth, the wireless standard for personal handheld devices named for a 10th century Viking king who united his nation. Transmission rates can reach 720kbps on the same 2.4GHz band used by Wi-Fi. Bluetooth's 10-meter range isn't a problem for its intended use as a replacement for the cables that link PDAs, cell phones, and PCs. But that limited range does hinder its networking potential. Also, Microsoft won't support the latest Bluetooth version in the upcoming Windows XP operating system--which will hinder Bluetooth's prospects (despite backing by a consortium that includes Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Toshiba, 3Com, Motorola, Compaq, and Dell). However, Microsoft may relent when the kinks are ironed out of the Bluetooth spec. The battle over wireless standards will continue to rage for years to come. In the meantime, Intersil's Boyd is getting a good night's sleep while traveling--and he can even send a fax or two. Technology, or at least wireless technology, is finally a friend.



For research data on the wireless market, click on the Wireless tab and you'll find market data on the latest mobile trends, as well as in-depth studies from the analysts at Allied Business Intelligence.

If you plan to wirelessly enable your notebook or personal digital assistant, the site will help you pick the right combination of hardware and service.

The site specializes in mobile computing information. The editorial crew prides itself on being wireless networking consultants first and journalists second. This information is not for the technically faint of heart, since it targets IT professionals, an audience that will appreciate the real-life projects described.

Everything from removable media to notebook PCs is for sale here. The site also has guides that tell you how to wirelessly enable your personal digital assistant and notebook.

Offers information on where to access a public wireless LAN and how much subscription fees will be.

Installing Bluetooth networks is the name of the game for this site: Here you learn how to connect your devices so that you can roam about the office and still be able to pick up your calls and e-mails.

Resource lists and newsletters are the main draw at this site. Mobile topics include discussion of service providers, but notebooks and laptops are the center of attention.

The site has updated lists of Wi-Fi certified devices, as well as industry news about the Wi-Fi wireless standard.

This site is a good primer on wireless networking products, trends, and applications.


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