The second phase of the wireless revolution will be much more exacting (and possibly much more expensive) than the first.
There are two technologies that in this decade will either change computing forever or at least influence its use even more than the Internet did in the nineties, says FrontRange Solutions global CEO Dana Buys. One is wireless and developments in wireless capacity, and the second is advances in voice recognition/voice technology capacity. Mobile capacity gives people unprecedented opportunity to move away from their desks and work where they want, when they want, Buys says. As soon as you no longer have to sit at a desk hooked to a phone system, you can start using technology much more to suit your convenience.
On the other hand, people will only use wireless devices if they're convinced those devices are improving their life- or work-styles and if they are easy to use. Inputting data into a fidgety little keyboard the size of a business card makes you feel like a clumsy giant in a land of elves. Typing out a URL, let alone an e-mail message, on a WAP-phone is cumbersome at best, impossible at worst; reading anything longer than a weather forecast is hardly worth the effort.
The sooner we can talk to our wireless devices, the better. Imagine telling your phone to "call Roger" or, asking: "When is the next showing of The Exorcist in the city?" Combine voice recognition with location-based services and you'll be able to find your boss, kids or spouse whenever you need. Of course, they'll be able to find you, too (no one said there wasn't a downside).
That makes the issue of voice and the impact of voice recognition on interaction with systems crucial, Buys says. However, while most users have enough horsepower on the desktop to do true voice recognition, the mobile devices that people use today just don't have the same kind of grunt.
"A 1GHz Pentium III has got enough horsepower to do natural speech recognition very well today, but a Palm has got a fraction of that kind of computing power; thus a Palm today can't really do voice recognition," Buys says. "Now wireless and wireless data capacity will enable [a PDA] because what you are going to see happening is server-based voice processing to these kinds of remote devices. There are companies like Nuance - one of the leaders in the American markets - and a few others that understand very well that you can give server-based processing much greater power than you have in these devices."
Nuance is a keen player in the development of services and voice-commerce using speech recognition for telephones that is designed to ease the frustration of "nested menu" interaction with a computer over the phone via the touch-tone keypad. The "Voice Web" aims to make any phone a convenient way to deal with automated services as corporations and businesses deploy telephone speech recognition to cut customer service costs, improve internal efficiency and sell products or services.
"One of the biggest challenges in getting salespeople and other mobile forces to use CRM software is the tedium involved in capturing the information," Buys says. "Providing voice capacity will overcome that difficulty. We are not very far away from really being able to realise that kind of vision," she says. "In terms of having enough data bandwidth to mobile devices, we're probably less than two years out from that."
There's more. Until recently, executives were accustomed to dismissing as a high-tech version of ham radio the convergence of communications technologies in the form of telephone calls over wireless data networks. Now companies are making it possible for customers to create voice over IP (VoIP) systems for conversations through their existing data systems and intranets based on existing wireless local area networks (WLANs). The technology, known as Internet Protocol (IP) telephony, promotes evolution from the computer-enabled, "intelligent network" wired systems of today towards the new "stupid network". This is the flexible, takes-all-data approach of the digital age, where intelligence rests in the end user's telephone or handheld computer device.
Computer telephony integration (CTI) provides the basic technology to bridge the gap between voice and data networks and integrate computer intelligence while making, receiving and managing telephone calls, enabling voice mail, interactive voice response, voice recognition and videoconferencing.
Based on the H.323 standard for audio, video and data communications across IP-based networks including the Internet, VoIP technologies make it possible to integrate digital and traditional technologies into a single powerful network for wireless voice, data and, in time, video transmission. That is one technology likely to be vital for the future evolution of m-commerce.
The proliferation of small, personal devices for voice or data information access is driving the momentum for mobile wireless access for individuals. The large number of mobile phone users around the world and the availability of new wireless data services are making it attractive for companies to target wireless applications as the next wave of customer benefits.
However, Accenture chief scientist Glover Ferguson is warning current developers not to get too fixated on existing technologies. "Right now, when people talk about the next generation of applications, it all has to do with handsets and personal digital assistants, and that is flat wrong," he says. "There is a wealth of other technology that, frankly, for business might be much more interesting." Ferguson says processors and communication technologies are now so cheap you can imbue ordinary objects with the gift of reason and communication.
One technology he likes to talk about, simply because it sits in his wallet and therefore is easy to whip out and demonstrate, is Radio Frequency Identifier (RFID) technology. A RFID tag can be read and written to without being in line of sight - and it provides flexibility. For instance, you can print laser labels physically by running them through your printer and incorporate a processor so you can then run the same label through your RFID writer and write something electronic on the same thing. "It is kind of like having a UBC code on a product except that you don't have to see it to read it, and you can write to it, you can change it on the fly," Ferguson says.
British Airlines already has a prototype that involves fitting RFIDs to the baggage tags of premium passengers. Each time the tag passes near a reader/writer, it turns on the computer and provides it with power so that the luggage can be correctly directed to its destination. "Your bag disappears into the bowels of Heathrow and is directed, hopefully, to your destination by the electronic tag that it is wearing," Ferguson explains. "So now your luggage can be lost with extraordinary sophistication. The idea is that it is less likely to be lost and, when it ends up in Afghanistan, they will be able to tell you exactly where in Afghanistan it is."
In Czechoslovakia, there is a manufacturer of suits tagging his entire inventory as he makes it. Pairing suit jackets with their matching trousers is simple, and knowing where every item on the inventory is easy because every item has its own licence plate. "[It's] getting to the point where you can stack 17 objects on a pallet, put it on a forklift and run it out of your warehouse. As you go out, the reader can read everything that is on the pallet and tell you what just left the warehouse," Ferguson says.
While RFID technology is a decade or so old, Moore's Law in action means the devices are not only powerful but also inexpensive.
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