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The Wireless Internet Revolution

(From Pen Computing #36)

The wireless Internet is in the midst of an evolution, not a revolution. Its success is not coming overnight: In fact, it really hasn't begun. And yet interest by companies worldwide in delivering their services via wireless conduits is setting the stage for an untethered future that will increasingly seem commonplace over the next decade.

The innovative uses described in this Wireless Focus section of Pen Computing are merely the beginning of this revolution. Aside from the strong returns on investment and increased customer satisfaction they bring to companies that have implemented these products and services, perhaps the most important part of these case studies is the revelation that such services are possible today and finally being widely implemented by forward-looking companies.

There are easily 20 new press releases a day coming from companies announcing their "solution" for wireless applications, mobile portals, gateways, middleware and end-user devices. Developers are targeting one-way paging, two-way messaging, wireless phone networks, packet data networks, you name it. All are trying to establish beachheads in the industry. But just like any land grab, there will be spectacular winners and abysmal losers. However, the final wireless data industry layout is far from decided: Experimentation and the willingness to take risks are still necessary ingredients in finding out which mixes work and don't work.

Some of the greatest strides may arrive when Bluetooth applications start being widely implemented in 2001. While Bluetooth was initially envisioned as a mere linking technology that does away with cables and replaces them with wireless connections, this technology will likely enable peer-to-peer networking and personal area networking for cell phones, handheld computing devices, and just about any device you can imagine.

UK-based ARC Group forecasts there will be 182 million mobile data subscribers globally by the end of this year and 1.2 billion by the end of 2005. Similarly, Phoenix-based Cahners In-Stat Group predicts the wireless data market will grow from about 170 million subscribers worldwide in 2000 to greater than 1.3 billion in 2004. "As a result, more than 1.5 billion handsets, personal digital assistants, and Internet appliances are expected to be equipped with wireless capabilities by the end of 2004," Cahners notes.

Many feel that messaging will drive wireless data adoption, just as it drove PC-based Internet use. In-Stat estimates that the number of wireless messages sent per month will balloon from 3 billion in December 1999 to 244 billion by December 2004.

  • Pundits such as consultancy Strategy Analytics have repeatedly cited an evolution of device functionality in the handheld computing arena. The tiers are:
  • Personal information management/messaging
  • Desktop extension, including word processing, spreadsheets and presentation applications
  • Multimedia, including consumer applications like MP3 music and business applications such as instructional video clips
Based on recent announcements, these tiers of functionality appear to apply to wireless services as well. Operators just getting their toes wet with wireless data services tend to dabble in PIM/messaging services, including basic content delivery. Now many of those operators are trying to bring wireless to the enterprise, providing on-the-go access to information stored in corporate databases. Once these operators have figured out how to get behind enterprise firewalls and provide those services that extend the desktop, the operators that have enough bandwidth will shoot for a whole menu of multimedia services that include entertainment and business applications. Along the way, expect to see a variety of innovative services like instant chat, wireless advertising, mobile banking, mobile commerce and location-based variations of all these offerings.

Yet despite such grandiose dreams for the wireless data world's future pubescence, it's important to note that the industry has at best reached toddler stage, where the players know just enough to be dangerous but not enough to make the industry 100% foolproof. Among the many issues sure to cause intense growing pains: form factors, e.g., wireless phones vs. personal communicators; global roaming; multi-mode and multi-frequency phones; privacy's role in location-based services; security in mobile commerce; wireless phones' suitability in moving vehicles; social etiquette; electromagnetic radiation, etc., etc. It's a complicated industry with an overwhelming number of deployment and usage issues.

Further, it's really unlikely that all cultures will adopt wireless data connectivity in the same manner. For instance, while NTT DoCoMo's i-Mode menu of wireless content services has been wildly popular in Japan, that type of adoption is unlikely to translate across the Pacific to the United States, where users have higher expectations thanks to ubiquitous access to high-speed wired Internet access. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned from each country's variation on untethered data services for businesses as well as consumers.

Wireless Internet-based services will continue to catch on, nonetheless - though with gradual, rather than overnight, acceptance. And anyone who has read a funny SMS from a lover while racing to catch a taxi, clinched a crucial sale by showing a client their company's new price list that was downloaded to a wirelessly enabled PDA, or profited from action taken based on a wirelessly delivered stock alert can tell you this: There's no turning back. -

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Tammy Parker has written about and consulted on wireless communication for 15 years. She can be reached at

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