A number of important milestones passed recently that not only foreshadow a significant shift in the wireless industry, but are setting the stage for what we believe will be the dawning of the next level of wireless enablement. Individually, these milestones are interesting cocktail chatter; Collectively they signal a significant change in technology as we go forward.
The first milestone is the 20th anniversary of the initial wireless call, which took place on October 13, 1983 and was initiated by the president of Ameritech Mobile in Chicago. In a grand display of symbolism, the call was placed to the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell in Berlin, Germany. The effort was first criticized as something akin to a parlor trick, although in less than two years wireless services had spread to more than 20 major U.S. cities as a new industry was born.
The second milestone (actually two of them) centers on the announcement last week the Levi Strauss & Co. will no longer manufacture its jeans and other clothing in the U.S., and the news this week that Kodak will stop making slide projectors, but instead continue its shift toward digital photography and imaging.
In essence, these developments signal a shift in both technology (in this case wireless and mobile), and the use of that technology (manufacturing). The wireless anniversary is important since it demonstrates just how far we have come in terms of wireless development and technology.
In fact, some of the very first cell phones were based on technology developed for the U.S. military by U.S. manufacturer Motorola, which was an early pioneer in the creation of small and compact analog devices like the then innovative FlipPhone and ultra-small and durable StarTac. (Some might argue that Motorola has since lost its grip on mobile innovation and is quickly losing ground to manufacturers outside the U.S., but that is the topic of another column.)
After 20 years of development, innovations and refinement we have definitely come a long way in terms of wireless voice and data communications. In fact, a lot further than investors and developers first dreamed, if you consider what can be done today with instant messaging and picture mail. The really exciting news, though, is that we still have roughly a decade to go before we reach that point where we really know what to do with wireless technology. Most 'gurus' in the computer and communications industries agree that the really 'big' developments in this world took about 30 years before finally finding their applications level among users. These developments include the creation of the telegraph, radio, television and computer.
Don't think this is so? Ask anyone who remembers the introduction of the Apple I in the early 1970s and the IBM PC in the early 1980s. Most users of the early Apples were quirky little tech types who were more comfortable with a soldering iron than a social situation (which might still describe half the users of current Apple systems!). And while the gray metal IBM PC quickly became a business standard, primarily because of the development of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program, personal computers had a rough time being accepted as a serious segment (just as Ken Olsen, the founder of now-defunct Digital Equipment Corp.), and really did not hit their stride as personal appliances and 'user friendly' tools until the last few years or so.
Mobile computers came a bit later than the first IBM PC, spurred by the introduction of the suitcase-size Compaq Computer Portable, and today are the preferred platform for most corporations since they can do everything a desktop system can do and more (because of their inherent portability and now wireless capabilities). The next step is the evolution of highly-mobile devices (handhelds, tablet PCs, and even 'smartphones'), which are still struggling to find their specific niche in the consumer and business world, mostly because of deficiencies in such things as battery life and screen display. But, we expect a significant change in the use and perception of these devices within the next five years or so, as applications impact the design and use of these systems and widely-available wireless make afford effortless and constant connections to remote information sources.
Wireless has even more potential than computers and mobile systems to achieve new heights of utility and function, and at a rate that is perhaps a lot faster than what is expected. You only have to look at how fast simple wireless local area networking (WLAN) and Wi-Fi connectivity has grown over the past few years, starting as a relatively expensive option for companies and government installations, and now an investment no-brainer for consumer who want to cut the cord. Basic Wi-Fi access is also evolving to become an expected resource, even though the majority of providers are trying to sell it like premium bottled water to a parched public.
If you use that first wireless call as an indicator, then we still have about 10 years to go before we will really see clearly just what role wireless will play in our everyday business and personal lives, which means we still have a lot of technology and perception hurdles to overcome along the way. These hurdles include improvements in reliability, security, applications, user interfaces, and social integration (which hopefully include a re-education for those people who still scream into cell phones in restaurants, theatres and while walking down the street).
We are just now seeing the introduction of converged devices that meld computing and wireless communications capabilities, and can only imagine how these formats will evolve from their present often crude and kludgy states. It is our opinion that some of the best developments will occur in applications and infrastructure, since the devices themselves are simply client windows and will eventually be as subtle an unobvious as embedded chips and micro-programs in today's common kitchen appliances and automobiles.
In fact, one development to watch carefully is the rapid increase in embedded wireless devices, not only in your car and supermarket scanning devices, but within previously 'dumb' items such as cargo containers and the spare parts for your lawnmower. In the past year or so, there has been significantly more interest in the use of such things as radio frequency identification (RFID) systems that can wirelessly communicate across networks (see news item below), and many companies are already using RFID technology to automatically configure and track mobile systems usage. Essentially, we are just at the first stages of developing applications that tie into such pervasive and 'smart' objects, which can be programmed to function without human intervention and paint a more complete picture of resources and inventory.
We predict that starting early next year, you will see a definite shift in the wireless industry from basic wireless enablement and re-active solutions to pervasive and pro-active activities, which depend on more robust wireless systems and perhaps the use of multi-agent applications. This second phase of wireless activity has already pushed a number of technology providers to think about restructuring and repositioning, especially to distance themselves from general competitors. And it is not the strong that will survive this time around, but those that are 'thought leaders' and have a solid technology platform and customer base to back up that wireless bravado.
This brings us to the second set of milestones we mentioned earlier, concerning the shift in core products and manufacturing capabilities of companies in the U.S. Although many stockholders are kicking and screaming, Kodak has acknowledged the digital handwriting on the wall and is rapidly distancing itself from conventional film photography. Sure, film quality is still better than digital images, just as some might argue that phonographs and vinyl records are better than CDs. But, digital will easily win out because it has carried the technology to a new level and opened it to a wider audience (in terms of image manipulation and use).
By the same token, the fact that Levi jeans are walking away from U.S. soil, and will be manufactured by cheaper and hopefully just as reliable labor offshore, is but the latest indicator of the demise of the traditional U.S. manufacturing industries. If you want more examples, just visit the abandoned or gentrified manufacturing areas of most large cities in the U.S. In Boston, for example, a once thriving 'leather district' is now populated by small Internet and wireless applications companies, as well over-priced condominiums. Just outside London, the Docklands area is still littered with the abandoned hulks of former factories, just waiting for new businesses and applications.
We believe this coming shift in pro-active wireless enablement and development will provide a springboard for a lot of new business opportunities, and perhaps the launch of new industries that are built upon the ghost of manufacturing but have a significantly refreshed spirit. Significant changes do not come easily or without some degree of pain, however. So, our advice is to think in terms of strategic agility and do not remain too mired in current rules that may change quickly as we shift into a higher applications gear.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.
This was first published in October 2003