Is Europes Enterprise Wireless Coming Back?

By Guy Kewney  |  Posted 2003-12-06

Is Europes Enterprise Wireless Coming Back?

LONDON—The CEO calls his MIS team in and says he wants a wireless LAN at work: "Look, I have wireless networking at home. I installed it myself. How hard can it be?"

"How hard could it be?"—words that IT admin people hate to hear because normally, its not as easy as it looks. Especially when it comes to installing wireless.

Theres been an early dawn on the "second day" of the wireless LAN-installation industry. There was a hiccup, of course. Here in Europe, the figures show that the market has been more stable—a stability paid for by being at the expense of being slower. In the American market, there was a lot more enthusiasm at first, and bigger doldrums after that initial exuberance.

For the past year, the market has been consumer-led—but that situation may be changing faster than even its partisans might have predicted. At Octobers London Enterprise Wireless Technology conference and exhibition, Wi-Fi Alliance Chairman Dennis Eatons second-day keynote speech compared the growth of the WLAN business to the early days of the PC and expressed surprise at the rapid recovery of enterprise wireless. "We didnt expect the enterprise market to pick up till next year," Eaton told me. "I really didnt think there would be the budget for new spending by IT management, but the last quarter saw real growth in enterprise WLAN; and this one is showing even more. Roughly, weve seen 30 percent and now over 60 percent growth."

The business buyers are back. You might have missed it by the second day of this show because there really werent that many visitors—but you can put that down to the security scare over the visit of President Bush, which pretty much locked the center of the city up. The first day, everybody agreed, was pretty crowded—certainly better than last years event.

As with the PC market, said Eaton, the enterprise has lagged behind individual initiative. "With the PC, we had the old Data Processing world saying that they wouldnt allow personal computers, and people just bought their own. The same thing has happened with wireless."

Next page: Hurdles to European wireless.>

European Hurdles

Throughout much of Europe, wireless progress was slowed by the fact that it was illegal to set up a public network in many countries. Commercial Wi-Fi was only legalized last year in the United Kingdom, and there are still queries about exactly who can run a public hotspot in several other European cities. But pragmatism has won; even where it was officially banned, users ignored unenforceable regulations.

The result, says Eaton, has been a simple response: Senior corporate executives have fallen in love with the technology, and where IT management has been reluctant, because of security scares, individual employees have taken the initiative. The week of the show, Airespace launched its European subsidiary. Like its rivals, Aruba and Trapeze, this company is targeting security-conscious installers of wireless; the Airespace technology touts its ability to have the access points "listen to each other"—thus quickly spotting any rogue access points which might compromise security. Trapeze was promising similar features, and manageability issues suddenly are coming to the fore.

And that, of course, could mark the crucial difference between a home network with a single access point and a corporate infrastructure where security actually might matter.

The surprise, over here in Europe, seems to be how little extra credibility market leader Cisco has. It still has more corporate network nodes, perhaps, than any other rival; but delegates to the show said they arent sold on the idea of going down a proprietary route.

Ciscos CCX—sold on the basis of providing Ciscos own LEAP security—wasnt the talk of the show, except amongst those who were warning that it wasnt a free lunch. It comes at a price—of preventing people who use it from using any other wireless access points.

The EWT show was a success—but it has to be put in context. It occupied a single floor of the second, smaller hall at Londons Olympia conference center. Put into context: In its heyday, the major summer Network show occupied about 10 to 20 times the floor space and delegates, even though it had to tempt visitors up to the center of England—to the "second city" of Birmingham, and the National Exhibition Center. (You might compare Olympia 2 with the NEC by going to Las Vegas and comparing the main exhibit halls to the conference center in just one of the Strip hotels.

As this years Comdex show proved, giant IT exhibitions were a thing of the 80s and 90s. In todays thinner climate, however, an industry that experiences the sort of sudden jump in spending that Wi-Fi is enjoying on both sides of the Atlantic is big news.

Guy Kewney is among Europes best-known IT writers, having covered the PC and communications businesses since the mid-1970s in print, on TV and radio, and latterly on the Web. He has regular columns for Personal Computer World, IT Week and The Register, and is editor of www.NewsWireless.Net—and has more portable and mobile bits and pieces than anybody could carry, including his own portable Wi-Fi access point and three different cellular data cards. His objective is to be omnipresent on the Internet.

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