Industry analysts say people can expect a massive boom in the number of companies with fully deployed wireless networks in 2004, despite the financial and security concerns.
The looming wireless boom, analysts say, will be fueled by a recovering economy, and a desire on the part of businesses to "get in on" a burgeoning technology that is seen to increase productivity and give those who have it a competitive edge.
Tim Scannell, founder and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass. consulting firm specializing in wireless technology, said companies that want to stay competitive better get aboard the wireless bandwagon, or they could find themselves playing catch-up.. Just like enterprises that were slow to adopt the Internet, the personal computer, and even the telephone, businesses that fail to go wireless may eventually be at a huge disadvantage in terms of productivity, he said.
"Most every company out there today is looking at wireless technology because it's a competitive edge thing," Scannell said. "It's not a case of if they're going to do it, but rather when is the best time to do it."
Scannell said that most major companies have already deployed, or are seriously planning for the deployment of wireless networks. But due to a slumping economy, those are mostly very small projects designed to let companies test the wireless waters.
"Businesses are taking it step by step, using baby steps to approach wireless," Scannell said. "Even though wireless is the competitive edge thing, they're really cautious about spending the money right now."
Scannell said the economy is showing signs of recovery, and he predicts that during the first quarter of 2004, those small projects will begin to get additional funding, resulting in a major wireless boom.
While there are many productivity gains associated with the freedom of wireless connectivity, analysts point out that the technology also presents businesses with some vexing concerns. Maintaining network security continues to be a major consideration, and wireless presents a big challenge when it comes to measuring return on investment (ROI).
"It's easy to measure ROI in a wired environment because it's a very controlled environment," Scannell said. "But once you go wireless, even if it's inside a single building, all of a sudden you're dealing with individuals on a highly personalized basis."
In order to effectively measure ROI, Scannell said enterprises must look closely at individual use and performance and measure it from that standpoint. For this reason, his company highly recommends that its clients get end users deeply involved during the planning stages of wireless deployment.
"One of the biggest mistakes companies make in wireless deployments is not focusing enough on the end user and on the user interface," Scannell said. They need to gain a strong understanding of "how wireless is going to impact and be used by the people in the field."
Scannell and other analysts point out that the big down side to mobile computing is that it's inherently insecure, especially in the area of wireless local area networks (LANs).
Encryption protocols used to secure most wireless LANs have historically not been safe enough because they were originally meant for wired systems, Scannell said. Earlier this year the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) released a much stronger set of wireless protocols, but products that support the new specification won't be available until the end of the year, he added.
"One or two vendors have come out with products that support earlier versions of the new specification," Scannell said. "But they may suffer compatibility issues going forward."
Tony Iams, a senior analyst with D.H. Brown Associates in Portchester, New York, points out that maintaining security within a wireless network is a two-part process. The company deploying wireless must first be able to properly detect the devices that are connected to the network and who is using them. Then they must be able to properly manage the more traditional aspects of network security such as permissions and authentication.
Iams said businesses will have to put in a little extra work to make sure their traditional network directory services, like Microsoft's Active Directory, Novell's NetWare and various LDAP implementations, work well with a wireless environment. Also, companies need to invest in a proper RADIUS server, which is a special purpose directory server designed to process devices that connect intermittently to a network.
"First you negotiate with the RADIUS server, and that determines what type of connectivity you get to the network," Iams said. "Then you start talking to the directory server and the directory server determines who the user is and what that user is allowed to do."
Beyond increased productivity, Iams said another factor driving adoption of wireless systems is the fact that end users seem to love the technology. When end users love something they have a way of getting what they want.
"Management may balk at introducing new costs, but these things have a way of happening by themselves," Iams said. "Users will start doing it whether or not management knows about it."