The Enterprise or Individual Consumers?
Over the past decade, wireless technology has had a tremendously transformative impact on both the business computing model and the day-to-day lives of consumers around the world. Greater connectivity has changed personal communication habits, increased productivity and driven untold numbers of data-based applications into the field. However, as much as wireless has affected the world, end users also play a role in shaping the technology. Development follows need (not to mention money). Toward a better understanding of this dynamic and the overall future of wireless, then, it helps to differentiate between the enterprise and the consumer sectors, each of which has its own set of wants and needs. Certainly this divide is not lost on mobile-device vendors in their user segmentation of soccer-moms, teenage gaming enthusiasts, tech-bling junkies and mobile professionals.
To date, the consumer market has been the primary driving force in wireless. The history of wireless mobility on the consumer side is based on two fundamentally different principles: entertainment and productivity. Together, these have made wireless the success that it is today.
People want to do the same things they have always done, but with less of a headache. Along these lines, it has been said that there is no single “killer app” except for what serves the right need for the right person at the right time. Voice calls remain the number-one reason for having a mobile device, but the rationale behind making calls has shifted toward the banal. Once upon a time, cell phones were used to communicate specific messages. Today, with less cost-prohibitive calling plans, friends use them to “stay in touch” when standing in a checkout line at the supermarket. In the same way, the modus operandi behind text-based communication is being shifted as fast as consumers figure out how to message with their already-enhanced devices. While there is a general expectation that technology should enhance productivity, it is actually often used just for the fun of it. Consumers have driven the evolution of wireless into mobile gaming and personalization with ring-tones, ring-backs and wallpaper. Vendors, carriers and third-party developers have capitalized on such habits. And with the advent of mobile video and downloading of music, consumer influence on wireless is expected to be more of a factor than ever.
Seeing how the strand of wireless over the past 10 years is littered with abandoned technologies and faded memories of killer apps, making future predictions can be as tricky as auguring the shape of quicksilver with a crystal ball. Consumer demand is notoriously fickle. Like the enterprise, the consumer market represents a juggernaut of herd consciousness. They both respond positively to big brand-names. But without the massive internal infrastructure and investment of the enterprise, consumers can shift direction much faster, turning on a dime to catch the next fad. Indeed, many people change mobile devices as often as once a year, making for an extraordinarily short lifecycle and evanescent development curve. This level of churn must alternately seem a dream and a nightmare to device manufacturers, but it affects the software side also. On average, wireless developers use three different IDEs—there is no single toolset today that fills all of their needs. Furthermore, according to the most recent Evans Data Corp. (EDC) Wireless Development Survey (Spring 2005), more than half of all wireless developers (56 percent) indicated that they would consider changing development tools to better affect mobile solutions.
Looking forward, the role of the developer should not be underestimated. Vendors and carriers enable development, but second- or third-party software engineers are quite often the ones driving actual innovation. To the extent that they choose which platforms to write for and what languages to use, they are the darlings of the vendors and their competing developer programs. As technology drivers who are consumers themselves (after all, who will be the first person to own the personal GPS with a heart-rate monitor or those cool Oakley shades that connect by wireless to a Bluetooth-enabled device?), developers constitute a potential windfall of information regarding the future of wireless.
The future of wireless in the enterprise is all but guaranteed by the advancement of the various technologies: devices, networking, and software. However, while the increasing maturity of wireless technology and improvements in bandwidth are now making enterprise-class operability more feasible, there remains great room for improvement. This is to say, the enterprise will shape the future of wireless only to the extent that wireless apps are able to integrate into the paradigms and service-oriented architectures that corporations already have in place. For instance, moving to a WLAN does not present such an obstacle to the enterprise—m ost laptops or notebooks now include wireless access as standard features, and intelligent access points are relatively inexpensive to purchase and install. But w ith form-factor incompatibilities and other fundamental technological limitations of extending the enterprise application framework, extensibility to smaller mobile devices can be a real issue. Just as wireless is demanding custom application development of the enterprise, it also drives its own set of custom devices.
One crucial barometer for growth in the enterprise is robustness: Success of wireless development in the corporate sector depends on the extension of mission-critical content delivery. Approximately 40 percent of wireless developers already support the mobility of business-critical vertical enterprise apps. But of the wireless developers currently involved in this area, two-thirds of them report that they are extending less than half of their mission-critical apps. Simply put, not everything can get ported over. Middleware aside, no wonder that wireless developers tend more toward simply writing new applications. EDC’s survey revealed that 78 percent of wireless developers overall are writing applications from scratch, compared to 58 percent who are extending existing apps.
Furthermore, even if all functionality problems were to be solved overnight, there would still be security issues. Whereas much of the functionality of consumer devices is predicated on openness, corporations have reason to fear the loss of their data to outside sources. SSL/TLS is the primary security mechanism used by wireless developers in the enterprise sector, but it is by no means perfect. In fact, some corporations use as many as a dozen different security protocols in order to better secure their digital property.
By no means is all of this to suggest that insurmountable incompatibilities exist between wireless and the enterprise. Many new wireless technologies do fill specific needs, not to mention improve productivity and lower operating costs. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) are both seeing growth. While the former is currently only being integrated by 11 percent of wireless developers, another 48 percent are evaluating it. Forget bar-code scanners. It is not long before real-time product tracking will transform the way that companies do business. As for VoIP, which converts voice into a digital signal that is then transferred over the Internet, it has already been adopted by 26 percent of wireless developers (up from 17 percent six months previous). Another 26 percent are currently engaged in the evaluation process. As much as VoIP in the enterprise is related to WLAN connectivity, it also depends on calls being able to revert to the phone’s GSM should a worker step out of range of the network.
Another important consideration for the