One of the quickest ways to get everyone's attention, and a little jail time as well, is to yell "fire!" in a crowded theatre. Or, if you really want to draw attention to yourself, stand completely still on a crowded sidewalk and look straight up. Passersby will inevitably notice what you are doing and look in the same direction.
The same phenomenon is now at play in the computer industry, as every company in the universe touts wireless as the be-all and end-all of technologies. Most recently, Andover, Mass.-based Spectel, Ltd. released plans for a wireless version of its video-conferencing software that will eventually allow up to 1,000 people to use their cell phones and other wireless-enabled devices to participate in group conferences and discussions. We plan to write more about Spectel and mobile video-conferencing in later editions of the Shoreline Weekly Mobile Outlook, but quite honestly we can't see the great benefit of adding video to good old-fashioned audio conference calling. Do we really want to try to decipher a PowerPoint slide that is displayed on the small LCD of a mobile phone?
What bothers us about wireless today is how much it is being over-hyped and over-sold by so many vendors out there, who basically promote it as a solution rather than present it for what it is: a very useful technology. We like to compare it to other breakthrough technologies like the radio and television. Both are pretty amazing and have revolutionized our lives. However, they are nothing without the right programming and content to make these technologies appeal to various groups and convince us to give up a chunk of our previous time to use them. The same can be said for the automobile. Take away the travel purpose and the destinations and all you have left is, well, an interesting and expensive ride.
Although we dismiss a lot of what Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has to say as sheer bravado, we do agree with his assessment made earlier this year in a very well-respected publication that the computer industry has grown to what it is today by selling things that people really didn't want to buy in the first place. In fact, you can go one step further and say that a lot of the products that are developed in the compute industry -- and for mobile and wireless applications in general -- are solutions in search of a problem.
Is wireless marketing full of hype and holes?
It's sort of like the Pasta Pot that is all the rage in infomercials and daytime television. You know...the one that has a cover with all the holes that lets you drain the water from the pot without removing the cover? This is the ultimate example of inventing a problem to fit a solution. We wouldn't be surprised if this so-called invention eventually becomes the product poster-child for wireless systems marketing.
We are just now seeing the result of unrelenting wireless hype and technology peddling. Prices for these systems are plummeting, even for systems that are more advanced than your basic 802.11b. This means the price margins are incredibly slim for manufacturers, as they pump more and more wireless access routers and cards into the market. This may be great news for the small "mom and pop" businesses and consumes who want to install simple wireless networks in their homes or shops. However, mid-size and larger businesses just aren't buying a lot of this bare bones wireless technology because it is essentially not secure, it is not backed by some solid applications, and there is little bring-it-to-the-bank ROI statistics to back up serious investments.
Wandering from wireless
One other sign the wireless industry is maturing, or at least is taking a beating from over-hype, is the sudden exodus of companies that have previously thrown their heart and muscle behind Wi-Fi products. One of the more high profile of these wireless expatriates is Intel Corp., which earlier this year discontinued sales of its branded wireless networking products as it focuses more attention on its chip business and Centrino chip products. Who knows? Maybe Microsoft will be the next to discover that 802.11 wireless technology is a commodity business whose pricing structure is a lot closer to supermarkets and vegetable stands than serious business gear.
We know all of this talk about wireless hype and comparing wireless cards to apples and oranges is a bit pessimistic and definitely casts a cloud on the bright future that is forecast for wireless applications. But, we are not criticizing wireless in general, just the technology-laden approach a lot of vendors are taking toward selling it to the consumer and business masses. For sure, there are some excellent examples of companies that are presenting and selling actual wireless solutions as opposed to just a handful of routers and wireless access points. For example, there is ReefEdge, Inc., a wireless developer that takes a strong and highly-focused enterprise approach to wireless to the point of describing their approach as a "wireless services fabric." Their strategy is to develop a common set of services for each client that stresses security, monitoring and system configuration.
ReefEdge's customers typically are those that use wireless and wired LANs as a definite part of their everyday businesses, with applications that involve the healthcare, government and retail sectors. The differentiator is that the company takes a systems-level approach to implementation and deployment, and deploys wireless technology and applications from a controlled infrastructure standpoint. "Once you get the policy management infrastructure in place, you can easily roll out such things as voice without having to re-engineer your entire network," explains a company executive.
One other company, which we will be writing a lot more about within the next few weeks, is Aruba Wireless Networks. Although barely a year-and-a-half old, Aruba has managed to establish a credible beachhead in enterprise-class wireless by understanding that businesses want a lot more than a simple set of solutions from an appliance perspective. What they want are strong security tools and safeguards, and a simple and easy way to deploy, expand and control wireless networks that snake throughout a corporation and campus-wide environment. Not surprisingly, Aruba leans heavily on RF management and wireless intelligent switching techniques, to the point of "dumbing down" wireless access points in favor of a smarter and more centralized control of these nodes.
Finally, we take notice of wireless service providers like Nextel, which has announced plans to offer a wireless LAN service with RadioFrame Networks, which integrates voice and data applications, wireless PBX support, network maintenance and monitoring, network design and consulting, and a variety of wireless applications that target core areas like transportation and inventory management. We think the wireless carriers will quickly recognize the opportunities that exist in offering a mix of 802.11 and wide area wireless services to business customers, especially as the cost for accessing wireless hot spots drops to just about nothing, the price of cellular-based wireless access decreases, and reliability of service increases.
Again, we will be writing more on the topic of wireless technology versus true applications, as well as reporting on our own experiences with cellular-based wireless cards and higher-speed wireless alternatives. So stay tuned! Better yet, let us know what you think or have experienced as you make your way on the roads from wireless appliances to applications.
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.