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Another wireless standard? Oh MAN!

Is the world ready for yet another wireless standard? Intel Corp., Proxim Corp. and others in the field seem to think so. Find out what Tim thinks.




Is the world ready for yet another wireless standard? Intel Corp., Proxim Corp. and others in the field seem to think so and last week proposed developing a new, or at least a generally-agreed upon, set of wireless rules that would be based on the evolving 802.16 wireless metropolitan-area network (MAN) standard. To support this effort, they have joined together to form WiMAX, which is a nonprofit group that is determined to promote and certify the compatibility and interoperability of broadband wireless access devices using the IEEE 802.16 wireless MAN specification, as well as to develop and pump new products into the marketplace. ( www.wimaxforum.org).

Basically, the MAN specification would offer wireless connectivity over a 30 mile or more area, as opposed to the current 300 ft. bubble offered by standard 802.11b technology. Sounds like a pretty smart move, especially when you consider the dramatic signal drop-of rate when you skirt the boundaries of traditional 802.11 technologies, and the obvious cost of adding multiple access points throughout a building, campus or even a city to offer layered 802.11 wireless coverage.

There are a few bumps on this road, however, not the least of which are the compatibility issues between traditional 802.11 and the wider-area 802.16 technology. There is also the more important question, which is do we really need yet another layer of wireless technology (Here is where al the techno-zealots in the industry rush to their computers and pump out email to me defending the unrelenting march of technology and insist that I show more respect for Moore's Law and other rules of technical engagement!).

In fact, the idea of a MAN standard has been bandied about since 1999 by the IEEE, and has spawned more than a handful of companies that now offer wider-area wireless coverage to primarily corporate users. The work in this area initially focused on the high-end of the wireless spectrum, which is when we saw companies like Tantivy ( www.tantivy.com), Flarion Technologies ( www.flarion.com), ArrayComm ( www.arraycomm.com), and others enter the scene with solutions that offered MAN alternatives to business users.

Most of these solutions – which had varying relationships with the traditional wide area wireless carriers, starting with simple sharing of cell-phone tower space – debuted before the whirlwind of activity and PR now surrounding 802.11 wireless communications. For most, back then, it has a difficult sell to convince business users there was a need for often proprietary wireless channels, especially since wireless had yet to emerge as a positive 'ROI-buster' in terms of proving its worth to the masses.

I ntel Corp. is, of course, now promoting MAN as the 'next big thing' in wireless, which causes us to raise an eyebrow considering 802.11 wireless (WiFi) has also been described as the next big thing – in terms of interest and actual deployments if not revenues. Some analysts are saying that such powerful and extensive wireless systems will eventually be a replacement for wired DSL and broadband systems, which are now all-the-rage in homes and businesses across the U.S.

We are, of course, a bit skeptical of such claims since we take a more practical approach to technology innovation. Despite all the hoopla surrounding wireless technology (in particular, WiFi), we still have a long way to go in terms of tracking and verifying the actual ROI benefits of these systems to your average business user. Sure, we are familiar with all the arguments that unplugging the network results in a more mobile and hopefully more productive individual. The tough part is to definitively prove that wireless access results in a more productive individual. It is the old argument between 'soft ROI' and 'hard ROI', which essentially shows that wireless is cool and hip and functional but that productivity depends more on the individual than the technology.

Also, it becomes significantly harder to track and measure ROI and worker performance once the 'plug is pulled'. You might compare it with going for 'a drive' in your car, versus driving to a specific destination. Casual driving may be enjoyable, interesting and even an activity unto itself. However, the real productivity of the automobile lies in getting from Point A to Point B quickly, effectively and with the least expense.

A MAN in the House? 
Will there be a place for wireless MAN in the future? Maybe, but we seem to think the cellular carriers will have a lot to say as they continue to position themselves for varying degrees of wireless. They might adopt MAN technology, or maybe just restructure current cellular models to achieve the necessary price points and reliability levels needed to hit the same marks as wired services. We know of at least three companies presently operating under the public radar that are developing plug-in technologies for wireless carriers that focus on more localized wireless communications, and blend in such things as billing software, seamless roaming, and administrative manageability. The real advances to be made, we feel, are in the underlying software, infrastructures and applications services that will be offered by and through the wireless carriers and available wireless networks.

Will more powerful wireless MANs impact limited-area wireless systems, such as current WiFi offerings? Sure, at some point. But, you have to keep in mind that most people will stick with what works, even if those solutions involve multiple layers of technology. It is already possible to roam from one wireless access point to the next without realizing you are 'bubble hopping'. You can also jump from WiFi to 'heavy duty' wireless systems, such as CDMA and GSM, without losing a data packet breath. Evolving MAN systems will have to be as economical and as flexible as these multiple linked systems to make some headway. We already suspect there may be some compatibility problems with current wireless, so that is another factor that may create problems for yet another wireless alternative.

Our suggestion to companies looking to create more aggressive and widespread wireless networks in a world that is already suffering spectrum bloat is to stop trying to reinvent the wheel and focus more on building a better and stronger wagon. The serious issues to tackle include management and control, security, reliability, ROI measurements, applications development, service and support, and user training. All in all, a very full plate. More robust and standardized wireless system are fine, but let's not forget that while the act of driving there is fun, the ultimate destination is the important factor and the reason for sitting behind the wheel in the first place.

News watch today: Applications development in your pocket from Sybase 
Look for Sybase, Inc., to officially introduce today Pocket PowerBuilder, a mobil3 applications development tool that can be used by enterprise developers to build mobile, handheld, and wireless WinCE-based applications. The introduction marks a further push by Sybase into the mobile arena, since it extends the tools and techniques of its server-class PowerBuilder environment out to a mobile work force. Benefits of the new mobile environment – which is initially available as a beta product – include the Sybase DataWindow technology, which allows 'dynamic data access with display formatting and data manipulation capabilities'. The techno-types at Sybase also tell us that this entry marks one of the first uses of 4GL IDE for mobile development.

We'll have to do a bit more research to check that claim out, but we did talk with one of the company's directors of business development recently to get the full picture on this announcement. The real benefit of Pocket PowerBuilder is that it does allow the more than 100,000 active PowerBuilder developers in the world to use this environment to build graphical and data-driven mobile applications. Since it is all a part of the same family, these developers can also leverage the capabilities of Sybase's iAnywhere solutions and synchronization technology.

Final pricing on Pocket PowerBuilder is not expected to be available until Q3 of this year, but we have convinced Sybase to allow beta users to try the environment out for free. Okay…Sybase had planned to do this all along, and we had absolutely nothing to do with their decision. But, since mobile applications development and portability are so important, and Sybase is an innovator in this space, we think it is important to at least take a look at this evolving product.

Developers interested in signing up for the Pocket PowerBuilder beta program can do so by clicking over to http://www.sybase.com/pocketpb. Phase I of the beta program is limited, and scheduled to begin this Friday (4/18). Phase 2 of the planned beta will start in may, and will be more open to the public. Check it out!

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 www.shorelineresearch.com. 


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