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All signs point to an improved wireless industry

Tim Scannell consults his Magic Eight Ball to see what's in store for the wireless industry.

Most analysts rely on an army of sophisticated tools and techniques to forecast trends and shifts in the computer industry, ranging from complicated models and algorithms that measure the slightest seismic tremor, to detailed surveys that let them put their fingers on the pulse of what is happening in the vendor or end user communities. While we respect and frequently use these tools, we can't help thinking about one of the most impressive and uniquely accurate devices we have seen in all our years of forecasting -- the Magic Eight Ball. Some people may think of it as a toy, but we found it to be incredibly on target when used to pinpoint trends and chart directions in the mobile and wireless industry.

For example, we vigorously shook ours the other day after asking it if things were really finally turning around in this industry after nearly three years of stress and disappointment. The answer: "All signs point to yes." We were so ecstatic with that prediction that we lost our grip on the ball and it accidentally went crashing to the floor with catastrophic results. We took this as a sign, however, that things are indeed turning the corner and it is best not to jeopardize success by asking too many questions of a small, black sphere.

Everyone has their own opinions on why the dark clouds are finally lifting from this industry, some more valid than others. There are also those who say the industry is not really improving, but just experiencing a few aftershocks that ultimately pave the way for even more heartache. Fortunately, we have always been optimists, so we think 2004 will ultimately show some measurable gains as companies reposition themselves with refreshed strategies and more realistic goals for growth. The following are a few of the technology trends that we think bear close watching this year, since these are the ones that will drive growth and development within the enterprise:

The evolution of converged mobile devices. While a lot of manufacturers over the past two or three years have introduced voice-capable PDA devices or PDA-enabled voice systems, most of these have essentially been prototypes of what was to come. We are just now seeing the debut of small systems that truly converge and integrate voice and data capabilities. We are seeing the evolution of systems that not only offer full Web capabilities, but are also equipped to function on multiple networks. The first iteration of these devices combine wide area wireless and Bluetooth, but emerging platforms will combine those with local and metropolitan 802.11 Wi-Fi and perhaps other technologies like ZigBee and ultra wideband (UWB).

This possibility brings us to the next technology-driving factor: The expanding use of multiple networks and architectures. Although most of the development over the past two years has focused on 802.11 Wi-Fi, it is certainly not the only alternative when it comes to wirelessly zapping information from one point to the next. In fact, much of the data we send and receive today already traverse over multiple wired and wireless networks, and the use and variety of these networks will escalate significantly as the information becomes more mission-critical and multimedia-rich.

In fact, if you take a look at some of the PowerPoint presentations that are now being flashed about by companies like Intel Corp, Nokia and Sony you will quickly discover that there is a unified push toward high-bandwidth and high-speed personal area networks (which includes ultra wideband). In this world, hundreds of millions of megabits of data are channeled to and from small client devices and larger dedicated appliances over low-power and low-cost wireless networks.

The real issue, we believe, is the practice by a number of companies to stress the number of uses a particular system can handle and its mesh capabilities rather than it strong security benefits. Wireless is one of those areas where numbers are more of a liability than strength, and the vendors who push juggling users over reliability and security should be approached with a lot of caution.

This leads us to our next driving factor in this space, which is the development of systems and embedded architectures that allow effortless and seamless multi-network roaming. Let's face it, when you are driving to your favorite restaurant you don't really care if you are on a road, a byway or an expressway. You just want to get to your destination as quickly and economically as possible. Solutions are available now that automatically handle the complex job of session management and are designed to allow secure and persistent connections. Two innovative companies that come to mind in this space are NetMotion Wireless and PADCOM, Inc., both of which have developed similar but apparently competing roaming wireless solutions and have a steadily improving base of users.

Unfortunately, both of these companies are presently involved in a lawsuit that was initiated by PADCOM late last year and alleges "patent infringement, tortuous interference with prospective contractual relations and business expectancy, and common law unfair competition." What it comes down to is that PADCOM believes NetMotion lifted a bit of its patented technology in the design of its wireless roaming system, and perhaps pushed it out of an impeding deal with AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. We won't take sides, but do believe that once the lawyers get involved in an issue you have to believe there is something big at the center.

Of course, just as where there is smoke there is fire, where there is wireless roaming there are security and authentication issues. This year, we will see the arrival of new 802.11 wireless products that incorporate tighter security specifications and protocols -- although a lot of cryptographers still are happy that the cipher frame formats are essentially the same and the key lengths are not long enough to resist brute force attacks. A lot of wireless service providers are struggling with this issue as they face the prospect of multiple-network roaming, and are actively working to develop a system that can balance strong security and centralized control with a friendly and capable user interface.

This sets the stage for our final and perhaps most critical driving factor, which is centralized management and control. This is a particularly important issue to those charged with managing networks within the enterprise, especially since many wireless systems were launched as separate projects and may not yet fall under the protective jurisdiction of traditional IT management structures.

We recently talked with Feisal Mosleh, who is the vice president of marketing at Vernier Networks and reiterated his company's commitment to secure LANs, and what he refers to as "user-aware access management and policy implementation" (which is really just a fancy term for making sure that no one gets in where they are not supposed to and the right people know if someone should). Mosleh and his team surveyed more than 8,000 people last year and not surprisingly discovered that security is a huge problem in enterprise deployments. He also described the company's network services approach to control and management as a strong differentiator from other alternatives in the market -- which basically is a collection of modules that builds upon basic virus protection to offer more extensive protection and control capabilities.

We think this is a good approach and Vernier certainly has the customers to support its product strategies, but we are not sure if Vernier is the only company that sold on the value of packaging multiple levels of security and protection as a service-based offering. Most of the wireless companies we talk to have already been forced by economics and demand to break their products into specific and targeted modules.

The real issue, we believe, is the practice by a number of companies to stress the number of uses a particular system can handle and its mesh capabilities rather than it strong security benefits. Wireless is one of those areas where numbers are more of a liability than strength, and the vendors who push juggling users over reliability and security should be approached with a lot of caution.

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

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