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Business Technology: It's A Wireless World

A business-technologist I very much admired -- the late Bob DiStefano, who had been CIO of the Vanguard Group mutual fund company -- used to say, "We're not going to get to vote on this."

Bob knew that expectations about how technology should work and when it will be adopted are determined by forces far outside a company's walls. It didn't matter what Vanguard executives felt about, say, personalization of its Web site. People expect the site that guards their $650,000 401(k) to be at least as easy to use as the eBay site where they bought a $5 copy of a 1991 Alaska license plate to complete their collection. So if an eBay experience led them to expect slick personalization, Vanguard execs didn't get a vote.

I thought of Bob last week as Microsoft and AT&T Wireless unveiled the latest Cataclysmic Wireless Event That Will Set Us All Free. It's easy to get weary of such announcements. In a world filled with overpromising what technology can really deliver, wireless has been the standard-setter. I have no idea if Microsoft and AT&T Wireless can really "unwire U.S. corporations" as they promise. But this is one of those broad technologies that is hitting critical mass, whether business-technology executives want it or not. Employees and even customers are going to show up one day, very soon, and expect wireless network access where they work or buy.

"I don't think there is anything you would want to forget about it. It was an experience we lived through, and it worked the way things were supposed to. I mean we relied on them, and we did what we were supposed to do, and thank God they did what they were supposed to do. ... We relied on the rescuers at that point, and like I told the other miners, they have the resources of the whole world around them."

-- Randy Fogle, crew chief at Black Wolf Coal Co. and one of nine miners rescued after 77 hours trapped underground, from the Daily American, Somerset County, Pa. July 30, 2002

Now's a good time for a confession. I just finally hooked up a wireless network in my home office, and in a week I've completely adjusted to the assumption that I can surf the Web, check E-mail, and access network files anywhere in my house. There's one downside, in that my constant E-mail monitoring will almost certainly drive my wife crazy. But that's a business-process issue that needs to be resolved (wow, is she going to hate the sound of that), not a technology problem. The technology was profoundly easy, fairly cheap, and completely addictive.

This of course calls my credibility into question. Just because a technology changed life around my kitchen doesn't inevitably mean it's going to change the world. But there are smart people who see this coming, too. John Parkinson, chief technologist at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, says the coming year will be the tipping point for widespread wireless networks for employees and customers. First, because the technology has become extremely easy to use. And most important, because it's being embraced as a bottom-up phenomenon of people trying it, liking it, and demanding it.

That's the reason why I'm the least of an IT manager's worries. New college grads will be the most demanding of businesses. More and more, they're coming from schools such as Stanford that are dotted with wireless networks. They'll find tethered cubicles positively stifling.

The growth of wireless technology beyond the mobile phone has been particularly frustrating to predict. People love mobile communication and quickly make it part of their lives when the cost and convenience reach a reasonable level. But return on investment in business environments has been tough to nail down for wireless networks.

And a lot could still delay wireless growth. Security is a glaring problem and the most likely roadblock to its spread across businesses. The hardware tools -- odd hybrids of PDAs, mobile phones, and notebook computers -- haven't quite hit the mark with customers yet. But Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, and others are racing, in some cases for their lives, to find the answer.

But it's coming, regardless of whether companies embrace the idea or fiercely resist. It'll most likely creep in piecemeal. A marketing group sets up a network so everyone can bring notebooks into the conference rooms. A few software developers use one to work at outdoor cafeteria tables on nice days. An independent restaurant owner offers it in hopes of creating a better experience than the chain that hasn't set business policy for it yet.

So, I guess it's still not too late to try to vote against mobile technology for your employees and customers. The problem is, it's a campaign that's already lost.

Chris Murphy
Executive Editor/Features
Bob Evans will return next week

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