Wi-Fi buzz at CTIA

One of the dominant trends at this year's CTIA event was communications convergence

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It's ironic that despite the CTIA's standing as a premier mobile and wireless event, which specifically targets mobile executives, conference attendance seemed to be significantly down this year due to increased anxieties and restrictions on travel and mobility. In fact, a survey of more than 120 U.S. companies conducted by the Associated Press revealed that nearly half of these firms were limiting domestic travel and canceling all...

non-essential travel by their employees. A number of companies are also supporting workers who are not comfortable traveling at this time.

Although there was definitely a quieter "buzz" emanating from the thin crowds on the exhibit floor, there was a much stronger buzz in terms of the wireless technology being showcased. In previous years, the CTIA has always focused primarily on cellular technology and wireless handsets. However, the spotlight of this year's event primarily focused on short-range 802.11 wireless technologies and the evolution of so-called wireless "hot spots," both within corporations and placed throughout the U.S. in public areas.

The CTIA event itself was even wireless-enabled, thanks to services provided by wireless carrier T-Mobile ( www.t-mobile.com), which already offers 802.11 access at more than 2,200 coffee houses, airports and other mobile access "watering holes" throughout the country. Attendees at the show could sign up for the service at any one of a number of kiosks scattered throughout the convention center, or subscribe on-line. However, we have to question T-Mobile's strategy to charge attendees $9.99 per day for the service, since it would have been a far better marketing strategy to offer wireless connectivity free as a strategic courtesy. While T-Mobile was the "official" wireless carrier at the show, we spoke with a number of attendees and vendors who had absolutely no problem tapping into the two or three wireless systems that were floating around the exhibit floor during the three-day conference, including one operated by the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Catching random wireless signals and piggy-backing on someone else's wireless network may not be the most ethical practice, but is a reasonable alternative for executives who are under the gun to maintain costs during expensive road trips. T-Mobile could have turned this into a strong marketing campaign by offering a free ride to the thousands of people who did sign up for the daily rate. On the plus side, though, we hear that the company did serve up some killer chocolate chip cookies during a joint press conference with Hewlett-Packard and the Starbucks coffee house chain held the last day of the CTIA show. We are still checking to find out if they charged for the cookies.

To its credit, Bellevue, WA.-based T-Mobile presently commands the top spot in wireless hot spots, and last week announced a deal with Boingo Wireless to use its software platform to help other cellular carriers and wireless telecommunications companies offer Wi-Fi services. Boingo presently supports close to 900 hot spots throughout the U.S. Now, if they would only dump Catherine Zeta Jones and bring back Jamie Lee Curtis...

One for All, and All for One
One of the dominant trends at this year's CTIA event was communications convergence, or providing users with the ability to easily hop from one wireless network to another without a great deal of aggravation or difficulty. There are already a number of third-party solutions that provide gateways allowing devices to jump from one network to the next, but those in the know agree the best way to juggle multiple networks is from the device itself.

As a chip manufacturer, Texas Instrument, Inc. (http:// www.ti.com) obviously agrees with this perception and at CTIA was talking about a new reference design the company has developed that allows cell phones to easily connect to different types of wireless networks. Called 'Wanda' - which we guess is a personalized derivation of the word 'wander' - the technology is designed to be embedded in cell phones and would be able to handle all types of wireless networks, from long-range GSM to short-range Bluetooth and various flavors of 802.11 (a,b,g, i and so on..)

Some people believe there is a potentially small market for such devices. In fact, a spokesman for one wireless communications group stated in a respected on-line trade publication that he doesn't believe there is a demand for such technology as of yet, and when it does arrive it will be a niche market. We disagree, however, since the ability to seamlessly switch from higher-priced cellular networks to lower-cost 802.11 systems and back again presents significant ROI benefits. And in this economy, the technologies and solutions that can pay for themselves relatively quickly are the ones that will catch the eye of corporate bean-counters.

There also is a strong and steady interest for Wi-Fi in general throughout the enterprise segment, despite the bugaboo of the economy and tight budgets. At the moment, as many as 57% of U.S. companies use Wi-Fi networks, and up to 22% more are planning to use them in the next 12 months, according to a report just released by one research firm.

Other companies that have injected 'multi-modal' communications capabilities into their mobile devices, or at least are seriously investigating the premise, include Hewlett-Packard, Sharp Electronics and Motorola, Inc. Cell phone leaders, such as Ericsson, already offer multi-modal phones in Europe and Asia (which combine GSM and Bluetooth access capabilities). In terms of notebook computing, all of the biggies -- like IBM, Toshiba and others -- offer 802.11 Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communications capabilities embedded into their respective systems.

One significant roadblock, though, is the battery life on small cell-phone devices that may incorporate Wi-Fi compatible chips. As anyone who uses 802.11 cards in their notebook or handheld systems knows all too well, this technology requires a lot of power and can quickly sap battery life. (Bluetooth, on the other hand, because of its low transmission capabilities, requires very little power to operate). So, embedding 802.11 into cell phones can defeat the long battery life offered by most units today. Motorola is one company in particular that is very concerned about the battery issue, since it is poured a lot of time and research and development dollars into developing technology that keep its devices alive and active for a long time. TI is also looking into this problem, and hopes to tweak its Wanda technology to require less power to operate.

Texas Instruments wanderings in Wi-Fi are important since it is one of the first major companies to endorse the proposed security upgrades to the 802.11 standard, which right now are based on the wired encryption protocol (WEP) specifications. The IEEE has released the early specification of a wireless encryption protocol standard, which will eventually show itself in the market as 802.11i. However, a number of companies have already announced plans for product upgrades, and some have even introduced early products (although the IEEE is reportedly not too pleased about this, since the official standard won't be released until later this year and products trickled early into the market may suffer some level of incompatibility.) A few more companies have also jumped the gun on the faster 802.11g specification with products, event though the IEEE is not due to release the final version of the spec until June or July of this year.

Still, the eventual availability of more secure Wi-Fi products (you notice we did not say entirely secure?) will be enthusiastically welcomed by the enterprise community since it will allow more 'mission critical' information to flow through the comparatively insecure wireless networks that now exist.

Danger-ous waters
One other company that caught our eye at CTIA is Danger, Inc., which demonstrated its clever HipTop wireless handheld system (which is available in the U.S. as the 'Sidekick' through T-Mobile!), and announced the early availability of a software development kit for developers who would like to create applications for the device.

Danger pla ns to launch a more formal development program later this year, but wante d to get a beta version of the SDK out into the market so the company can start building a library of applications for both the consumer and business markets. The SD K can be downloaded free of charge (take note, T-Mobile...) to qualified developers fro m the company's Web site ( www.developer.danger.com). Critics of the small system have complained about lack of any real applications for the HipTop, other than your s tandard email, voice and text messaging and Internet browsi n g functions. The device does these things very well, but if limited to just those functions it is then locked into the same categ ory as cell phones and paging devices. If that i s the case, then the HipTop may be at a disadvantage because of its comparatively bloated size as compared with the sleek new generation of wireless phones and devices.

We attended a dinner meeting during CTIA (yes, we do appreciate other meals in addition to breakfast!) with top Motorola executives, who at one point were handed a HipTop device by one of the journalist types also in attendance. Surprisingly, the corporate vice president and general manager of Motorola, Peter Shinyeda, seemed unfamiliar with the system and dismissed it as poor competition to the company's new series of mobile phones. VP and General Manager Omid Tahernia, was more familiar with the device and noted that the company is looking at it's success and acceptance very carefully.

At present, the closest competitor Motorola has to the HipTop is the Accompli 009 Personal Communicator, although this clam-shell-type system, which has been around for a while, is designed more for text messaging, email and voice communications than Internet browsing. We tested it more than a year ago and found it to be too cumbersome and awkward ( www.motorola.com).

We think Danger has an opportunity to position the HipTop as the standard for others to follow in the business and consumer appliance market, and is making the right move by offering an SDK and hopefully expanding the library of available software. However, we caution the company to be a little more strategic in efforts to expand its developer universe approach than other standard-setters have been in the past. We are, of course, thinking of Palm, which effectively established the market for handheld PDA-type systems, but wasted too much time and effort on the quantitative aspects of developers (adding as many as they could), and not enough on the qualitative aspects of encouraging the development of enterprise-level applications. Palm has since re-focused its efforts on real applications development, and is now working to expand the perception of its system beyond that if a basic PDA and complicated alarm clock.

Another company that made a major introduction at this year's CTIA event is LapLink, Inc., which introduced an upgrade of it's 'Everywhere' file transfer and synchronization software. Version 2.0 adds full remote desktop control, as well as a secure client for users who access corporate data through their at-home or remote systems. Users of the software are allowed free access through the company's Secure VNC network to retrieve and transfer files. This level of security is in addition to standard Internet SSL security. License terms for the software, as well as information on discounted and free trial usage is available from the company's Web site ( www.laplink.com).

About the author: Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, MA 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 March 2003

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