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Wireless: Novelty or Necessity?

Development Tools / Utilities
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You can’t pick up a technology-related magazine without reading about wireless Internet access, including hype about mobile phones equipped with the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). Despite the pervasive WAP hype, there are numerous other choices for wireless data access, including the Palm.Net Web-clipping service, generic wireless IP carriers (e.g., OmniSky and Ricochet), Research In Motion’s (RIM’s) BlackBerry wireless email terminals, two-way paging services, and simple wireless dial-up connections (via cellular phone and cellular-tolerant modem) to a standard ISP.

Necessity or Novelty?

Do your mobile workers really need to request data wirelessly? Regardless of how sexy these wireless technologies are, a cellular telephone call is still the most efficient and cost- effective way to obtain information while in the field. If your mobile workforce only needs to receive short bursts of new data, alphanumeric paging remains the best choice, followed by two-way messaging through pagers, cell phones, and RIM BlackBerry devices. All other platforms require the mobile worker to check for messages, which is often not possible inside buildings, outside coverage zones, or when batteries are dead. In addition, it can be a time-consuming pain to initiate a wireless connection only to discover there are no new messages or there is no data to download.

Faking Wireless with Wireline Options

A viable option for mobile workers may be remotely synchronizing a personal digital assistant (PDA) using a good old wireline phone. For example, a mobile worker with a Palm device could synch from her hotel room phone to a Web-based personal information manager like AnyDay.com or AvantGo to access data from the company Web site. AvantGo has created a Web content push system that makes publishing data (including binary files) to remote PDAs effortless. Another choice for remote access to email—only for Palm PDA—users is the PocketMail service, which uses a snap-on BackFlip modem with acoustic cups. For $9.95 a month per user, your mobile workers can have unlimited access to email from any wireline phone in the United States using an 800 number.

Coverage, or a Lack Thereof

Each wireless provider uses different networks with different coverage areas. While coverage is improving, it is inevitable that key presentations and meetings with key clients

will occur where wireless connectivity is either nonexistent or flaky. If your mobile workforce becomes too dependent on wireless data access for onsite customer presentations, it will be in for a rude awakening. Again, the wireline options I have outlined often provide a higher level of availability and reliability.

Stare into My Palm, Please

As a practical matter, WAP phones make it difficult to work with customers in the traditional face-to-face, collaborative manner. The LCD screens on WAP phones are too small and too dark to be shared and are impossible to project during a meeting. Further, it takes full concentration and good dexterity to navigate the Web using a WAP phone, which prevents eye contact with the customer. The Palm and PocketPC devices suffer from the same defect to a lesser degree. Few people will be able to use such devices during meetings without appearing detached from their clients.

Is That a Gasoline Bill or a Wireless Bill?

The cost of wireless access plans varies wildly. While pricing plans change daily, the paging and Web-clipping options appear to have the lowest cost for high-volume usage, followed by the “all you can eat” generic wireless IP plans and WAP plans. WAP charges can be enormous if the user is checking email and stock quotes and indiscriminately browsing the Web. If your company is planning on rolling out a large number of wireless workers, choose your wireless platform carefully.

Getting the Biggest Bang for the Buck

Given the higher costs of wireless access, it is imperative to optimize the data transfer to/from the user. Fortunately, all platforms are easy to optimize. Paging and WAP technologies are the easiest to format. WAP is merely a subset of HTML, and smart page and navigation design will speed up access and lower costs. Unfortunately, these technologies don’t offer much in the way of data presentation, error-checking, or formatting. The Palm VII offers a more robust Web-clipping solution. It is easy to create simple, powerful, HTML form-based Web-clipping applications for the Palm VII platform.

There are also more powerful forms-based development tools that make use of the Web clipping built into the Palm VII, including Satellite Forms, Pendragon Forms, and NS Basic (a Visual Basic mimic). AvantGo provides a rich HTML-based development environment with online and offline modes and caching of form data until a wireless
“synch” occurs for both the Palm and PocketPC platforms.

WAP-ping Up

There are many options available to make wireless and “fake wireless” access available to your company’s mobile workforce. This technology is maturing, but it has a long way to go. If you choose and deploy carefully, you can empower mobile workers. Study the worker’s real needs, avoid the hype, and have fun. We’re on our way to a wild, wireless world!



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