System Supplement: Wireless in Ancillary Roles
Is wireless ready for prime time? Many companies aren’t quite on board yet. A few concerns—most of which are justified—about wireless have held back demand to some extent. Apprehensions about the muddled set of standards, speed of service, actual capabilities, interference with communications and inadequate security have hampered acceptance of wireless in some instances. Interestingly, Rod Montrose, founder and president of AVIDwireless, which provides clients with customized wireless applications, probably could be counted among the skeptics.
“They really have to understand the limitations of wireless,” said Montrose, who joked that his experience with wireless extends back to when it was called radio. “The battery might fail or the person might drive into a tunnel and lose the connection to the network. When people have to start over again, they get very upset and frustrated. You want to make the application very smart and expect that you’ll be losing signals and devices. If it’s Sunday morning and you’re standing underneath the phone tower, then yeah, you’re probably going to get high performance. But if it’s 5 o’clock on Friday afternoon, then you’re probably not going to get high performance.”
Although most enterprises aren’t prepared to make wireless the primary network, application or tool of their IT environments, it’s still too good to pass up entirely. Several organizations are using wireless in supplementary capacities effectively. For example, Towson University, located near Baltimore, operates a supplementary wireless network that covers most of its campus. The wireless network connects to both TU’s wired network and to the Internet. And many other colleges and cities seem to be headed in a similar direction.
One of the main drivers of increased adoption of wireless tools and technologies in supplementary roles has been the quality of products such as laptops, PDAs and cell phones that have come out in the past few years. Montrose’s company has worked extensively with corporate clients to customize their Blackberry devices. “A company would go off and buy the Blackberry device for corporate e-mail and scheduling,” he said. “But then they’d say, ‘What about our sales database? What about our field operations? How do we hook it into our telephone switch?’”
Another high-impact trend is the remote workforce. More and more employees are opting to work from home when they can, with the blessing of their company. Others, such as sales professionals, were road warriors to begin with. “(Companies) have a higher data rate and more people in the field,” Montrose said. “They can now automatically send data out to the field and give them online updates. One of the big efficiencies is not having to wait for people to come back to the home office and turn in the invoices or find bills. They can do all this electronically and remotely.”
A potentially big influence on wireless’ growth in ancillary roles might be radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. By combining RFID readers with PDAs, staff can perform inventory and service functions with the new hybrids, retrieving information from wired systems. “Now you have people walking around with their (RFID) devices, and they can immediately get access to their corporate database,” Montrose said.
Still, he added that the wireless sector as a whole has a long way to go. “Even though people talk about 3G and everything else, the hype far exceeds what the actual performance is in a lot of systems. We’re getting there, but it’s still not there yet. We’ve seen applications fail where they expected high-speed data connectivity.”
Therefore, one of the keys to rolling out useful wireless services and systems—supplemental or otherwise—is not trying to do too much. “Typically, when you’re working on wireless and mobile applications, you have to approach the application’s development differently than you do if it’s a wired connection,” Montrose said. “We’ve seen failures from clients who didn’t want to do that. They basically want to duplicate what happens on a desktop on a wireless device.
“A person at a desktop doesn’t mind seeing a lot of menu choices,” he added. “They don’t mind going to different screens because they’ve got a big screen in front of them. With wireless applications, a person’s going to get to what he wants immediately. You want to have a lot fewer choices. You want to have the menu optimized to how the person’s actually going to be using it. We’ve found out it’s a lot better to provide 20 percent of the functionality of the desktop and provide it very well and quickly.”
–Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org