Wireless 2004: Its About the End User

eWEEK.com's Wireless Center Editor John R. Quain fearlessly predicts 2004 will have more camera phones, rogue access points, foundering RFID systems and challenges for the enterprise.

If there is one clear signal to be detected in the ether of the wireless world, it is the voice of the end user. And when it comes to wireless, users want it, and they want it bad.

Consider the cell phone marketplace: Once only for affluent business travelers, today you cant walk down a city block without bumping into half-a-dozen motormouths chattering on cell phones. But the push for 3G, or third-generation high-speed wireless service, has turned into a Sisyphusian task. Part of the reason is the tremendous expense involved in upgrading the cellular infrastructure to support higher data speeds. But the main reason is the consumers. They hated WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) with a passion and made it clear that they were not going to pay more to squint at Web pages on a tiny cell phone LCD.

On the other hand, the ability to instantly beam pictures of inebriated partygoers to friends is apparently something consumers are willing to pay for, and along with the rise in popularity of cameras in cell phones has come a renewed impetus for high-speed cellular networks.

Conversely, Bluetooth has failed to garner the attention of the masses, and there are still only a handful of products that include built-in Bluetooth support. Some companies have proprietary wireless keyboard offerings—and Bluetooth models.

Elsewhere, DaimlerChrysler AG made some promising moves by adding Bluetooth to a few car models last fall, but Bluetooth support in cell phones has waned. Part of the reason again is the added expense in a competitive market, but the main reason is simply that consumers dont think they need it. True, there are various laws around the country against holding a cell phone in one hand and a steering wheel in the other. This would seem to argue in favor of an increase in demand for hands-free, wireless in-car systems. However, drivers have generally flaunted the regulations, and law enforcement hasnt seen fit to hand out many TWD (talking while driving) tickets.

Speaking of distractions, many of us recall how the first BlackBerrys in the boardroom created an outbreak of attention deficit disorder in meetings around the country at the turn of the century. Some of the novelty of ubiquitous e-mail has thankfully worn off now, but the value of online access in the boardroom has not. Today, with a $30 802.11b PC card stuck into a laptop, you can obviate the "its at my desk" excuse and get immediate answers to questions during a conference (rather than getting e-mailed responses hours later when everyones forgotten what the question was). Its this kind of value that end users instantly understood.

Security? We dont need no stinkin security, end users said. And so the phenomenon of unauthorized rogue access points was the new IT headache. (If you think there arent any rogue access points in your company, you just havent looked hard enough.)

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here for eWEEK.coms special report and comprehensive guide to managing wireless security: "The Gaps and How to Fill Them."

Analysts at the META Group recently crowed that 802.11 wireless access wont be a major factor in large enterprises this year. Dont believe it. The end user has spoken, and Wi-Fi is invading the enterprise whether IT departments want it or not. Fortunately, the 802.11i standard will be finalized this year, bringing superior security to the wireless enterprise and alleviating many of the current security concerns. (Watch for more on the progress of this spec and on forthcoming products in this space.)

Of course, much of the wireless focus now is on radio-frequency identification, or RFID. Here, the end user has been deafeningly silent. Conclusion? A rough road ahead for businesses trying to implement an RFID system. Even Wal-Mart Corp.s do-or-die push for RFID by the end of the year isnt likely to get the tag business on its feet and running any time soon. Most companies Ive talked to understand the potential return on investment of RFID, but unless dealing with Wal-Mart directly, companies arent making any moves to add RFID tags to warehouse palettes (yet). (Look to the Wireless Topic Center for regular reality checks on the RFID race.)

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here for details on how Wal-Mart Corp.s race for RFID usage is a major challenge for one of Americas most-recognized canned food brands.

Naturally, trying to play Nostradamus in technology is like trying to predict a Superbowl winner in August (my father thought this would be the Raiders year... Yeah, right.) There are bound to be some surprise winners and losers. Look for a discussion of one possible wireless fly in the ointment later this week and keep coming back for wireless news from the Consumer Electronic Show that starts in Las Vegas on Thursday.

In the meantime, to help us figure out what the end user wants—and what wireless solutions work—dont hesitate to contact me with your implementation horror stories, successes and wireless complaints.

eWEEK.coms Wireless Center Editor John R. Quain (JQ) has been reporting on computers and technology for over 20 years. He is the on-air computer consultant for CBS News Up to the Minute and has held positions at PC Magazine, Fast Company, Popular Science and Content.

JQ can be reached at john_quain@ziffdavis.com.