It is traditional at this time of year for analyst groups to identify the ‘hottest’ technologies of the next 12 months. It is equally traditional for IT directors to collectively utter a weary sigh.
The consensus view is that 2003 will be the year when wireless local area networking, or Wi-Fi, goes mainstream. Admittedly, similar predictions were made a year ago — and the year before that. But they just could be right this time.
For one thing, major suppliers are all rallying behind a single standard, arcanely known as 802.11b. Where once wireless LAN development was the preserve of start-ups and a handful of specialist vendors such as Apple and Symbol Technologies, it is now being supported by the likes of Intel, Cisco, IBM, HP and Microsoft.
Moreover, the world’s major telecommunications service providers are jumping on the bandwagon — companies, such as BT, T-Mobile and AT&T, that once viewed WLAN as a serious threat to their businesses. And, as if to underline the political shift that has occurred within the technology industry in the last 12 months, executives from Microsoft and Intel have even been meeting with Pentagon officials in a bid to ease concerns that the next generation of wireless networks will interfere with military radar.
One thing that has not changed, however, is the instinctive scepticism felt by most IT decision-makers towards the networking technology. There are notable early-adopters, as always, such as parcel courier FedEx and Marriott International, the hotel chain. But the vast majority of enterprises are toeing a more cautious line for now, preferring to wait and see if security bugs can be fixed and costs come down further.
In effect, WLANs permit Ethernet to work without having to plug the computer in to the wall. They promise to deliver data to laptop computers via radio waves at up to 11 megabits per second (Mbits/s). In reality, though, data transfer speeds are closer to 2Mbits/s.
Despite the industry buzz, WLANs are still relatively few and far between. But the roll-out is gathering pace, particularly in coffee shops in urban areas, in hotels and airport lounges.
To some consumers, the WLAN concept is compelling. There are also many businesses that are attracted to the notion of their workforce roaming their buildings with always-connected laptops and PDAs. But IT professionals, under ever-growing pressure to keep a tight reign on costs, will instinctively see things differently.
For one thing, WLAN does not come cheap. The network equipment may be inexpensive, but buying and supporting mobile devices is not. Gartner estimates total costs of ownership of about €11,000 for a wireless notebook, €4,400 for a wireless PDA and €1,400 for an ordinary WAP phone. Enterprises should also expect relatively high systems integration and application development costs.
Many companies, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, will simply view such an option as impossible to justify in the present economic climate.
Security is another significant problem. Some early adopters have fallen victim to hackers that have logged into their corporate wireless networks from nearby streets or car parks. This risk can be mitigated, however, by installing firewall and anti-virus software on users’ devices — a service also typically offered by managed service providers.
A further concern is how to support the ever-growing number of devices accessing a wireless network. Again, outsourcing provides an obvious, if somewhat expensive, solution. Increasingly, however, vendors including Microsoft, Netopia and Wavex are developing tools that enable in-house IT support staff to remotely diagnose and even fix certain problems on laptop computers. (These tools are currently incompatible with low-memory devices such as smartphones and PDAs, however.)
For all that, the decision to adopt WLAN technology may ultimately be beyond the IT department’s control. The number of mobile workers will double in the next four years, according to IT industry research group IDC. As those employees increasingly access WLANs around the world – and not just in hotels, airport lounges and coffee shops but also in the reception areas of their partners and clients – they can be expected to push for the technology’s adoption in their own corporate headquarters. By then, the wireless momentum may be unstoppable.