Mobility: Past, present and future

The mobile theme for this year is aligning mobility with your corporate mission in the interest of improving productivity, lowering costs and gaining a competitive advantage.

Feeling a little nostalgic this time of year? I know I am. The calendar is a fairly synthetic way of looking at time, but its impact is undeniable. In fact, let's go back a few years, to -- say -- 1981. It was in that year that I got started in mobility as a member of the team that invented, designed and built the first laptop computer, the GRiD Systems Compass Computer. We even built and operated a network of servers called GRiD Central that worked very much the way services on the Internet do today. But we didn't have wireless, just telephone modems. The appeal and ultimate importance of mobility was clear, but untethering would have to wait.

Fast forward -- today we have a huge variety of notebooks, from very inexpensive mobile Internet devices (MIDs) to mega-notebooks like Apple's new 17-inch monster. But they're no longer always the ideal solution to mobile IT needs, and things get a little more problematic when we move to handsets and wide-area wireless networks. 2009 will see a continuation of what is about to become a trend: the handset as replacement for the PC, at least in some cases.

Today's enterprise-class smartphones -- I prefer the term "platform phones" because these powerful devices can serve as platforms for a broad variety of applications -- can have desktop-class browsers, support for a large number of personal-information-management and personal-productivity applications, and the ability to extend functionality with apps previously feasible only on notebook PCs. Display technology is better than ever, and user interfaces (physical keyboard, virtual keyboard, etc.) are available to suit any preference. Prices are more reasonable than ever, which will further spur demand in 2009. But no single handset will make everyone happy, and the potential need to support a broad range of devices will challenge many IT departments this year. Hint: Limit choices, and have a little more free time on weekends.

And wide-area wireless networks continue to improve. Dropped calls and no-service conditions are rare today, and data throughput can regularly reach the megabit level on WiMAX, EV-DO Rev A, and HSPA networks. But throughput will vary significantly with location and load, and the carriers have significant investments ahead of them to continue to build out their 3G, 3.5G and 4G networks. The good news is that technology allowing wide-area networks to reach on the order of 100 Mbps now exists; the bad news is that it will take five years or so for these to become available.

The limitation here isn't in the technology or in building products to implement it, but rather in economics. As you may recall, it took a very long time for 3G to appear in a mission-critical form, in large part owing to the recession of 2000. The current recession will have a similar impact. But fear not -- this will actually be a pretty good year for wireless as customers drop landlines (and the occasional evening out) to continue to finance their wireless plans, a phenomenon known as fixed/mobile substitution. Wireless is pretty far down on the list of give-ups, even in hard times. Carriers will nevertheless watch every nickel carefully.

Other key areas of interest to enterprise IT during 2009 will be mobile device management (extending network management to wireless devices in the field), greater integration of enterprise functionality on mobile devices (minimizing if not eliminating the difference between what can be done in the office and what can be done in the field), and hard bargaining with carriers on minimizing monthly charges for service -- hence the need for carriers to spend carefully this year.

Things always take a little longer than we might like, but the rate of innovation in the wireless and mobile space remains very high indeed. The theme for this year, again with the economy as the overriding element, will be aligning mobility with corporate mission in the interest of improving productivity, lowering costs and gaining competitive advantage. And now is a great time to be making those investments: In a short time, the recovery will begin, and prices will rise. Grabbing opportunity while it's fresh is always a path to success in any economic climate.

About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at [email protected]

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