Opinion: Wireless Technologies To Buy, Sell, And Hold In 2006 - InformationWeek

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1/6/2006
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Opinion: Wireless Technologies To Buy, Sell, And Hold In 2006

Which wireless technologies will be hot in 2006? Wireless expert Dave Molta opines on WiMax, municipal Wi-Fi, RFID, and other hot topics.

For me, the end of the year is special for many reasons. I enjoy the onset of winter in upstate New York, marked by me as the first day I can set foot on safe ice at Oneida Lake. I look forward to seeing the relief on the faces of students as they turn in their final exams and projects, pleased that they have made it through another semester. And although it's sometimes tough to deal with the stress, there's an opportunity to reconnect with family and, yes, the opportunity to give or receive the perfect gift.

On the giving side, the shiny black iPod Nano elicited warm words from my often-ornery 15-year-old son Mike. I believe "Jackpot!" was how he put it. And on the receiving side, my wife was sending me a supportive message--I think--when she bought me a Yamaha Silent Mute system for my trombone, which will allow me to more politely play scales and arpeggios to my heart's content without driving my family insane!

Although I don't always enjoy writing my annual predictions column, it has a certain rhythm to it that provides satisfaction. If you think of wireless technologies as stocks worth owning or dumping, here are my 2006 buy/sell/hold recommendations for a range of key wireless technologies.

WiMAX: Sell. 2006 promises to be a year of disappointment for those closely tied to the WiMAX industry. Like many technologies, it is mired in that chasm between great potential and unfulfilled promise. The upside is enormous, particularly for networkers in rural and underdeveloped communities, where broadband is scarce but demand is growing. In developed countries, however, wires and fiber provide a better path to converged voice, data and video services. Someday, WiMAX may emerge as a viable mobile broadband wireless technology, but that's not going to happen in 2006--or in 2007, for that matter.

3G: Buy. Cellular service providers are getting frustrated that billions of dollars of investment in 3G service infrastructure hasn't captured the public's imagination. Turn on the TV or radio, open the newspaper or check your favorite blog, and you're sure to find some mention of Wi-Fi. But you won't find much attention paid to 3G, with the exception of the flames criticizing it as too slow or too expensive. That's likely to change in 2006 as 3G services become more pervasive and more affordable, spurred on in large part by new mobile devices that more fully exploit both the business and entertainment potential of 3G systems.

Metro Wi-Fi: Sell. This one is complicated. Many people are captivated by the prospect of extending Wi-Fi from a private network service inside the home or office to a public one serving the metropolis and beyond. But as appealing a vision as that may be, it's got long shot written all over it. Not only are the business models tenuous, but the technology challenges are immense, including the big three of security, scalability and interference in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band. Still, I remain willing to be proved a fool. In the coming year, metro Wi-Fi will be put to the test as large networks are deployed in Philadelphia, San Francisco and elsewhere. My prediction: The technology will play a significant role in enhancing municipal operations and public safety, but it won't provide much narrowing of the digital divide.

RFID: Buy. Some consider RFID (radio frequency identification) to be little more than a next-generation barcode, a niche application for retail vertical markets. They are wrong. RFID is a potentially transformative technology with profound societal implications. When combined with other communications technologies, including GPS and Wi-Fi, RFID will alter best practices in supply-chain management, providing new efficiencies and helping to further shrink the global village.

Smartphones: Buy. You may think I'm talking about BlackBerries and Treos, but the trend toward smartphones is much bigger than that. That's because all phones are becoming smarter as well as more open. They are becoming platforms for communication-oriented applications. Today, voice is the dominant application, but not tomorrow. The challenge, as should be expected from any new technology, lies in harnessing the complexity. The PC model, which sometimes seems predicated on the notion that every user will become an operating system administrator, just won't cut it for smartphones. The user experience is everything, and it will get much better in 2006.

802.11n: Hold. I want it to happen, I really do. But the vendor community has taken the standards process down a cloudy path, and it's no sure bet that even a truce in the standards war will lead to affordable and interoperable products in 2006. Beyond that, there's no compelling short-term driving application for 802.11n. With ever-cheaper access points, enhanced range is hardly a compelling reason to upgrade; at least at the office and even at home, the range of existing 11g systems has improved substantially over the past 2 years. Nor is there a pressing need for increased performance, at least not today. Look at most home and enterprise WLANs, and you'll find lightly loaded networks. Yes, I know we will eventually need more capacity to meet emerging home and business applications. We just won't need it in 2006.

As for the wireless market as a whole, the broader message has 2006 looking like a year of maturation in the wireless industry, a year not of new wireless technologies and hot startups but rather of refined mobility solutions that address real business needs. We'll find ourselves busy building out infrastructure and better exploiting the great progress in wireless technologies we have witnessed in recent years.

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