Wireless connections may be great for individuals but not for companies, writes Baseline's Tom Steinert-Threlkeld.
"The hottest technology in personal computing is wireless networking," declared gadgetry guru Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal on this years first day.
Speaking personally, hes probably right. Wireless access points are popping up in every conceivable location from Bryant Park outside the New York Public Library to pay services inside Starbucks coffee shops to home offices everywhere. As a result, sales of wireless gear are one of the bright spots in personal computing.
Why not? Who doesnt want the ease of flipping open the lid of a laptop and connecting to the Internet, at any time, from any place? Its kind of a utopian idea in computing.
But, speaking corporately, how much sense does it make?
If you have scores, hundreds or thousands of retail outlets, it may prove worthwhile, as long as the connections are secure. In the case of Starbucks, the wireless network put in place for the convenience of customers is now regarded as a "strategic asset." Next up: Allowing field managers to open a computer and file reports before they leave the store. As our nervousness in public increases, you will also see more and more corporate eyes tied into such networks. Webcams and wireless nets will allow lots of retailers to cost-effectively watch whats going on in their stores, for the safety of their customers, employees and physical assets.
Wireless networks also make sense for companies with mobile operations. Frito-Lay is well known for its fast collection of delivery data from route drivers. Home Depot saves an estimated $22 million a year through wireless management of inventory. Freight companies such as Roadway or J.B. Hunt over time will likely improve the efficiency of deliveries and change routes in progress through immediate response to business and traffic conditions.
Indeed, International Data Corp. (IDC) said in late December that wireless initiatives will be one of two main technologies that will benefit most from increased spending by corporations "over the near term." In 2003, companies will spend $1.7 billion on wireless networks, up 18.9%.
But thats a drop in the bucket in worldwide spending on information technology and telecommunications of $1.9 trillion, by the IDC count. And one place where spending on wireless networks doesnt seem to make a lot of sense is on the corporate campus itself.
Whether its several floors in a skyscraper or many buildings in one parcel of land, the addition of wireless networking ought to bear close inspection.
For example, what is the goal of the deployment? Does every worker really need to get a connection from anywhere at any time? Why, then, did you supply that person an office and a desk in the first place? Shouldnt that person, when out of his or her office, be concentrating on the conversation or presentation at hand?
If your staff needs connections in meeting rooms, then give them Ethernet jacks. You have them already, you say? Well, check to make sure you know where they are and whether theyre working properly. What is unproductive, and sometimes unsightly, is an employee, manager or sets of the same on their knees trying to find a working port in the floor. Take a cue from business hotels: Put the jacks and power ports on the top of the conference tables. And test the supposedly live ports on a regular basis.
This way, you get the "mobile" access most anyone needs and the security of a wired network, to boot. Plus, your users connect at 100 million bits a second, instead of 11.
Think about this: You dont really want to expose your equipment to the thrills and spills of the corporate cafeteria. You also can count on one hand the number of "corridor warriors," as IDC Senior Analyst David Senf puts it, who really need to tap out e-mail while walking down the hallway. And can do so without bumping into people.
Make the office the workplace its supposed to be. With the savings, invest in network services and software applications that really will change the results your employees and managers produce for your company.
If youre careless, wireless networking will be a distraction. Not the shot in the arm you wanted.
Editor-in-Chief firstname.lastname@example.org Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.