Wireless Needs Better Usability, Leadership to Fly

By Rob Enderle  |  Posted 2004-05-19

Wireless Needs Better Usability, Leadership to Fly

I moderated two panels over the past week. The first was on the best in show for the wireless track at NetWorld+Interop, and the second was at TiEcon on the future of wireless technology. We had a number of luminaries on the panels, including Stewart Alsop and Congressman Mike Honda.

First, I have to say I was tickled that Mike joined us. My family was in politics at one time and, as a result, Im never really sure if you can actually trust what a politician has to say.

In Mikes case, he came across as a regular guy with deep concerns about outsourcing and the impact of change on both the industry and Silicon Valley, and I personally couldnt have asked for anything more in a panelist or in a congressman.

Of all the topics I expected to have introduced, I was surprised that in the wireless industry, too, outsourcing was a key issue.

As with virtually all technology segments, support for wireless customers is being outsourced to areas where labor is less expensive, and the government is being asked to step in and protect jobs.

The panel members said they felt that this is not the governments problem to fix. They generally concurred that if government were to become more involved, the strategic impact on the industry would be negative.

Particularly interesting to me was the consensus position that it is the investor who is driving this trend. The market perception is that you are not a well-run company if you dont outsource, and that has been made into a checklist item for high company valuations. In other words, if you dont outsource, you probably wont do as well in the stock market. And until that perception is corrected, there is little the government or anyone else can do to change this trend.

WiMAX isnt a technology that delivers content over power lines, but used in conjunction with powerline networking, it could displace WiFi as it is being distributed today.

As you likely know, Wi-Fi is the umbrella that the 802.11 wireless protocols are placed under, and it represents the most common form of wireless networking today.

The panel at NetWorld+Interop was convinced that WiMAX and power networking are going to severely impact Wi-Fi. Im not quite so convinced, but I agree that the argument is compelling.

Power lines are very common and because you have to physically connect to them, they are perceived as somewhat more secure. For instance, you can drive up outside a home or building and attack a wireless network, but you have to physically penetrate the power line inside the building, in most cases, to do the same to WiMAX and power networking.

In addition, until we have fuel cells, these things need to be plugged in much of the time anyway, and if you can have your network come in through the same link, it would seem a natural path. Finally, in airplanes, this would seem vastly safer than Wi-Fi.

Next Page: Negatives include line noise and a lack of infrastructure.

Downside of WiMAX

Negatives have to do with line noise, the lack of existing infrastructure that would have to be built and the physical tether that would always require a close working proximity to the enabled power line.

Given the changes, panelists said this could play out with WiMAX and power networking being used to connect the Wi-Fi access points to the network and by creating a lower-cost way to roll out lots of them.

The fixed nature of WiMAX would cubbyhole it to stationary devices such as desktop PCs and kiosks, and both could co-reside very well.

The problem for me is still infrastructure. While I can see this happening, other wireless technologies are rolling out that could solve this last-mile problem, and both DSL and digital cable are vastly further along now.

So, I do see the potential; Im just not yet convinced that this outcome will be the one that would result. But I was in the minority on this, and that is something that should be remembered.

Intel will ship its Grantsdale chipset this summer with the wireless features turned off by default. Click here to read more.

A distributed control system called AutoCell came up from the audience at NetWorld+Interop, but it hit a nerve with the panel because wed all had this problem. The panel was supposed to be talking about the best wireless products at the show, and this was one of the few that came up.

Propagate Networks Inc. makes a technology, AutoCell, that is bundled with wireless access points. NETGEAR Inc.s APs are the only ones currently shipping with the technology, which automatically balances multiple access points in the home or business so that one does not step on another, which can often be the case.

We agreed that were this technology understood, it would be a differentiator among access-point providers. The fact that this was brought up by the audience rather than the panel members was particularly interesting.

AirMagnet Inc. was another company that came up as having a best-in-class product at NetWorld+Interop. Its offerings dynamically map the access points in a company; graphically showing where performance is good and where it isnt.

The company can highlight unapproved access points and locate them, and it offers one of the strongest tools Ive ever seen for securing and optimizing a wireless network.

This ability to locate, manage and secure a wireless network easily is undoubtedly a critical part of the responsibility of any network administrator, and AirMagnet clearly rose to a high level of interest at the show as a result.

Next Page: Usability doesnt matter to VCs.

Usability Problem

At TiEcon, Stewart Alsop indicated that usability is simply not something venture capitalists look at in the wireless space. Anil Kripalani, a senior vice president at Qualcomm Inc., indicated that the company can provide direction but has no control over usability.

This went a long way toward explaining why usability is so bad on the emerging class of wireless devices. It is interesting to note that both John Oxaal at Sevin Rosen Funds and Mike Parks at Virgin Mobile were focusing on usability, which I hope will bring improvements in usability.

Mike Honda, speaking as a user, said he is generally dissatisfied with the usability of the current crop of devices, and I think he spoke for most of us in saying that a dramatic amount of improvement is needed before the devices, and related services, will meet the market expectations set for them.

Across both panels, this felt to me as a moderator that we are clearly still struggling with what remains an emerging market. People are having trouble identifying important new technologies, concerns are being chased by tools that remain both important and obscure, and the voice of the customer is not being effectively heard.

And while the government wants to help, it is being hamstrung by requests for assistance and by the conflicting knowledge—based on experience—that generally when the government gets involved, it is a bad thing.

Click here to read about a spec the Trusted Computing Group is working on to secure wireless networks.

There is no apparent leadership driving the market at all, and without that leadership, the market is thrashing around looking for direction and meaning.

Until this leadership is found and user needs are better targeted, this market is likely to miss the expectations of users and buyers.

The market needs a strong player to articulate a future and drive the market toward it; clearly, there are companies that could do this.

It seems to me that we are simply waiting for one of them to step up, step away from the technology rhetoric and provide a direction that vendors and customers can get behind.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology. Full disclosure: One of Enderles clients is Microsoft as well as Advanced Micro Devices, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Transmeta, VIA and Vulcan. In addition, Enderle sits on advisory councils for AMD, ClearCube, Comdex, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and TCG.

Check out eWEEK.coms Desktop & Notebook Center at http://desktop.eweek.com for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.

Rocket Fuel