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1/2/2014
11:22 AM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Dangerous Digital Business Myth: We're Always Connected

Despite ubiquitous smartphones, CIOs still face tough calls in 2014 about connecting people and machines to the Internet.

We see people check their smartphones in the bathroom and in church, on the ski slopes and on the highway, and the conclusion we reach is that we're "always connected."

But that assumption is a mistake. If you poke just a bit at that assumption, you see that executives charting digital business strategy will face hard decisions about connectivity in the coming year. Here are some examples.

Retail stores
How many stores did you walk into this holiday season and see a sign encouraging you to use the store's WiFi network? Did Best Buy staff encourage you to bring your tablet and enjoy a free Best Buy Digital Network while shopping? Instead, retailers hope against hope that customers will keep their e-commerce and in-store channels separate just a bit longer.

Yes, I have my smartphone with me in the store, but looking products up on it while standing in the aisle is a miserable experience. And am I the only chump who still feels a bit guilty doing that, instead going home to double check online for better deals or different products? Retailers face a tough call: Can they build a digital environment that blends their store and online into a true omnichannel experience, one that brings in enough foot traffic to offset the revenue they would lose to "showrooming" and online price matching?

[Looking for new ways to support the influx of wireless users on your network? See BYOD Got You Down? Think Wireless First.]

Factories
In theory, modern manufacturing environments should become uber-connected -- put sensors on every machine along the line and get alerts if anything shows signs of breaking down.

But consider this very typical scenario: In GE Aviation's factories, the company has manufacturing equipment running on very old versions of the Windows operating system, CIO Jay Niedermeyer explained last year at an event for GE Intelligent Platforms. The equipment functions perfectly well, but it's nigh impossible to make Windows of that vintage secure enough to connect to the Internet. The tough call: Can you get enough operating efficiency gains to offset the cost of upgrading that machinery to a modern operating system that allows safe Internet connectivity?

The field
America remains a vast land with remote areas far beyond the reach of cellular connectivity. ConocoPhilips CIO Mike Pfister faced this reality when his team wanted to expand the use of analytics to optimize production of its oil and gas wells. It wanted to take pressure readings every minute or less and assess that data, rather than take a reading daily.

But getting that data from remote wells in areas such as West Texas required the company to build its own WiFi and radio towers in some cases. That's a big bet: Can ConocoPhillips's data analytics squeeze enough extra oil and gas out of these wells to justify the expense of building a more robust network out to them? Pfister is betting it can.

Salespeople and field technicians with wireless links to customer data know you don't have to be far from civilization to lose a connection. Dish Network outfitted 15,000 installation and repair techs with five-inch smartphones that they use for everything from an appointment calendar to route mapping. But CIO Mike McClaskey knew that the HTML5-based mobile app had to cache enough data that technicians could get information (such as their next appointment) without being online.

The ocean
Think West Texas is vast? Try the Pacific Ocean. Royal Caribbean International has long faced the challenge of keeping its cruise ship guests connected to the Internet. Satellite links have been slow and expensive, requiring guests to pay premium by-the-minute prices for a sub-par experience.

In 2013, Royal Caribbean CIO Bill Martin chipped away at that problem with a new deal with its satellite Internet provider that lets the cruise line offer customers flat-rate Internet access packages for the first time. Crews who spend months onboard can Skype home to their families for the first time. But the experience still isn't the broadband guests are used to. In 2014, Martin hopes emerging technology from a startup called O3b, which is still launching its network of satellites, will offer the dream of fiber optic speed with satellite reach.

The dorm
In university residence halls, the problem isn't getting a connection; it's getting enough bandwidth. University of New Hampshire CIO Joanna Young says capacity demand can rise 30% or more a semester, and the demand is moving from wired connections to WiFi.

"We're hyper-vigilant" about keeping up with capacity needs, says Young, who's experimenting with new technologies such as TV whitespace spectrum left vacant when television went digital. Of course, corporate CIOs don't have to accommodate online gaming and video streaming the way university CIOs do, but they still face a constant battle to keep up with bandwidth demands, as increasing use of cloud software puts new size and reliability pressure on IT infrastructure. CIOs get no credit for keeping employees online, but listen to the howls of protest when the network slows for even a few minutes.

It's a simple example of how we as employees and customers take Internet connectivity for granted -- and why executives charting their companies' digital business strategies can't afford to do the same.

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek magazine and Global CIO columnist on IT strategy issues. He has been covering technology leadership and strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999.

Want to discuss Digital Business strategy with your executive peers? Attend the InformationWeek Conference March 31 and April 1, where CIOs from companies such as GE, UPMC, and Dish Network will share their thinking.

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ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
1/6/2014 | 12:36:53 PM
Re: Nothing Like Shooting Yourself in the Foot
That's a powerful example of why "omnichannel" is easy to like in concept and very hard to do in reality.
asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
1/4/2014 | 5:59:09 PM
Nothing Like Shooting Yourself in the Foot
Providing wifi access at the retail level for customers may sound like a great idea to those decisionmakers who have never stepped onto a sales floor but the reality is quite different.  Case in point:  Sears pushes its employees (and gauges progress or lack thereof) to persuade customers to agree to "Store to Home," which is simply the name of the program to order online and ship in from another store merchandise that is out of stock.  It's beautiful marketing slogan/soundbyte to be able to brag that "we never run out of stock" (because of S2H), but giving customers wifi access right there on the sales floor negates (and takes money out of the employees paycheck) because the customers are ordering merch online for themselves instead of using salespeople. 
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
1/3/2014 | 8:50:33 AM
Remote everywhere
Remote and rural areas are problematic the world over when it comes to internet. Even being under half a mile from my nearest phone exchange, my connection is barely scraping the national average because it's somewhat rural. Those that find themselves much further afield struggle to even get basic access.

Fortunately the 4g rollout in this country is helping 3g spread to more remote areas, but it's a slow burn. 
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
1/3/2014 | 2:55:27 AM
Re: Please, embedded wireless access in the hotel bill
That's exactly the problem nowadays - it seems that the mindset of many business operators is still in the old days. They do not fully understand the client/end-user's behavior and corresponding expectations. In the hotel even if the WiFi is free, you need to sign-up every XX hours to maintain the access, which is not convenient for end-users. Wouldn't it be possible to have the sign-up only once before the guest checks out?
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 5:24:04 PM
Re: Please, embedded wireless access in the hotel bill
It's kind of like when airlines charge for luggage: business travelers have only so many alternatives. But it's certainly breeding ill will with customers.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 5:05:46 PM
Spectrum the new real estate
The spectrum crunch is very real and very scary for carriers. The US government could help, if it were fuctional. As it's not, for now, the only way for carriers to really regulate usage is to phase out unlimited plans and raise prices, while feverishly adding Wi-Fi as a helper tech where feasible.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Strategist
1/2/2014 | 3:13:24 PM
Please, embedded wireless access in the hotel bill
Hotel connectivity, even in a hotel contracted to help stage a cloud event next door, can be an iffy thing. As at CloudConnect in Chicago. Instead of being baked into the price of the room, it was a sign up with fee each 24 hours, and if you forgot the precise moment you signed up, you might be silently logged off the network with no notice. Everything appears to be working normally as you call up pages out of the system cache, but in fact you are in a disconnected room alone, with no way to communicate. Do hotel managements understand the nature of their clientele these days?
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 3:07:05 PM
Employers facing challenge
One major employer to add to your list is Uncle Sam.  Federal agencies understand the value of, and need for, mobile employees who can access data while performing services in the field. Put aside defense, homeland security and law enforcment agencies (where security remains a major stumbling block to going mobile.) Even CIOs at civilian agencies -- from the Dept.s of Agriculture to Veterans Affairs -- find it hard to overcome a host of technical and policy hurdles that keep them from connecting employees wirelessly to work.

 
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 2:48:54 PM
Re: Hotel connectivity
Royal Caribbean's business model makes sense to me given the satellite capacity expense, but on the hotel level I completely agree -- this is one of my great travel annoyances that the pricier the hotel the more likely you are to be charged for WiFi. By device.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 2:23:36 PM
Hotel connectivity
I am sure Royal Carribean will have many passengers willing to pay the flat fee. But I wish more hotels would simply bake access into the hotel price. I am seeing a lot of hotel ads that say "Complimentary Wi-Fi -- in the lobby." C'mon.
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