Wireless Choices Go Against The Grain

When technology executives consider new initiatives, they typically pick the one technology that best fits their enterprise’s strategic aims. However, many executives are discovering that choice isn’t so when it comes to wireless technology.

On the one hand, positive ROIs for making enterprise data available to mobile workers are becoming common. On the other, there is a confusing plethora of mobile devices, platforms and wireless transmission methods from which to choose.

As a result, the “pick one and discard the rest” approach is turned on its ear when it comes to wireless.

“I’d like to say, ‘Here’s what’s available, here’s what you use’,” said Peter Durr, director of technology for KMZ Rosenman, a Chicago-based law firm with more than 1500 users. “That would make my job easier, but am I really serving my clients? Unfortunately, in this case, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all.”

Wi-Fi hotspots have been widely available for the last couple of years in places such as coffee shops and airport terminals. Expanding on that technology, an increasing number of municipalities have started creating so-called “wireless clouds” that make access available everywhere in the city.

In addition, wireless operators have been rolling out fast, third-generation (3G) wireless services, such as Verizon Wireless’ 1xEV-DO network, which offer DSL-like speeds throughout entire metropolitan areas. And, starting at the end of 2005, wireless broadband, WiMAX, will become available.

For better and worse, technology executives are faced with the reality that each of those options has benefits and drawbacks and, as a result, enterprises increasingly must support more than one.

Good Choices/Bad Choices

Durr’s mobile employees, for instance, use wireless devices such as Research In Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry handhelds, to check their e-mail. But they also use laptops while out of the office to gain access to enterprise data, such as legal documents. Durr said there is no question these types of remote access increases the productivity of attorneys and other staff.

Echoing Durr, Jim Geier, principal of Wireless-Nets, a mobile technology consulting firm, said it is virtually impossible for a company to launch new mobile data initiatives and use only one type of wireless access.

But that doesn’t mean your enterprise must commit equally to all forms of mobile access, Geier said.

Rather, technology executives and network managers must weigh the strengths and weaknesses of all the options and apply them selectively to specific situations. That requires looking at the enterprise’s needs from a number of different points on the circle.

“Your choice (of access method) can depend on which devices people have,” Geier said. “Laptops and PDAs might be equipped to work over Wi-Fi, but if your user has a smartphone (like a palmOne Treo), you’d be looking at a cellular data connection.”

The Apps Perspective

Another way to look at the problem is to examine the nature of the mobilized application and the coverage it requires.

“For applications that need to have access from a lot of different areas, Wi-Fi doesn’t make any sense,” Geier said. “For example, a trucker delivering items to stores and to places out in the middle of nowhere is more likely to need cellular coverage.”

In other words, cellular data is more ubiquitous and more appropriate when access is needed from many different locations. However, sometimes speed is more important than ubiquity. “If you’ll be transferring large amounts of data, you need something faster like Wi-Fi,” Geier said.

And, of course, don’t forget the time-honored issues of cost and availability.

So far, 3G cellular data service is far more expensive than Wi-Fi. And it won’t be widely available until the end of the year since wireless operators are still busy deploying it.

Still, its widespread availability may well the trump the lower cost and speed of Wi-Fi, depending on the application, Geier noted.

What To Do?

In the end, if you believe wireless access can help your enterprise, you’ll likely wind up going against the natural inclinations of most technology execs and use a variety of access methods.

“The more options I can provide, the better service I can provide,” Durr said. But he also agreed that deploying multiple types of technology for the same tasks will have a price.

“If somebody’s sitting in Starbucks and can’t log on, it’s very difficult for the help desk person,” he said.

However, Geier noted that decisions eventually will become easier as devices will, increasingly, support multiple access modes. In the meantime, though, technology executives that typically work to limit the technology they support, will have to get used to the idea of supporting multiple, sometimes redundant technologies.