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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.]

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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User Rank: Ninja
1/2/2014 | 1:18:22 PM
Re: A very real problem
It was only until the last year or so that my neighborhood in a nearly urban area got a strong enough Verizon signal for my phone to work routinely using 4G. I still default to WiFi whenever I can, but the fact remains that businesses need to plan for low or zero bandwidth for their employees.
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 1:09:25 PM
Re: A very real problem
Very good point on the tension here between access and security. And you don't have to venture into "very" rural to lose cellular connectivity. Plenty of pockets of merely suburban neighborhoods don't have strong enough cellular coverage to do data work. 
User Rank: Author
1/2/2014 | 12:17:30 PM
Another Chump
Yeah, I'm one of those chumps who still feels a bit guilty using my iPhone to check competitors' prices and offerings while shopping in a store. But stores better start targeting the non-chumps with in-store online promotions and other incentives to get consumers to show up in their stores. 
User Rank: Ninja
1/2/2014 | 12:09:21 PM
A very real problem
If CIOs or other leaders haven't experienced this, it probably isn't easy to remember that connectivity in the US not only lags other highly connected nations, but is still fairly well limited to major population areas and transportation avenues. When you work with folks in very rural parts of this nation, this problem is very real. When you travel to less developed countries on a regular basis, this problem is very real. Herein lies the dilemma around VDI and not storing data on the mobile device. If your employee doesn't have network access, they are not able to work if there's nothing cached locally. When building a mobile strategy, security of the device must be balanced so that productivity isn't completely hampered in the quest to keep data safe and secure on the server.
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