The Disconnected World

CIO writers take a walk down memory lane and cast an eye over the disruptive technology of wireless and that ever-present thorn in IT executives' sides, the skills issue

In May 2001, Plenty of organizations were looking to wireless technologies to improve productivity and streamline customer outreach. That the technology had the potential to do wonders for roaming workers was pretty clear. Yet at the time few businesses had ventured into the wireless world.

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In the 100th issue, I introduced what will be our ongoing series where CIO writers revisit and then update seminal events, issues and technologies that this magazine has covered over its 100-issue journey.

A good idea except for one thing: This is the 101st issue.


It was time to come up with a new tagline, so welcome to "CIO Retrospectives - Seminal Issues & Technologies". (Didn't have to look far for that one, did I?)

If you need a bit of a reminder regarding the stories here's our premise. The writers are to kick off with "What were we thinking" - that is, why we all believed the selected story was important and the pervasive mind-set at the time among users, observers and (occasionally) vendors. Then, in some instances at least, the writer look backs and casts a jaded eye - that is, "What were we thinking?" - over the topic.

This month CIO writers take a walk down memory lane and cast an eye over the disruptive technology of wireless and that ever-present thorn in IT executives' sides, the skills issue.

Once again I'm happy to entertain your suggestions for other "seminal" technologies or issues we should cover.


Whither goes wireless and all things mobile?

In May 2001, Plent of organizations were looking to wireless technologies to improve productivity and streamline customer outreach. That the technology had the potential to do wonders for roaming workers was pretty clear. Yet at the time few businesses had ventured into the wireless world.

Today of course, wireless technology is increasingly supporting person-to-person communications from anyone, anywhere to anyone else. Few people even stop to reflect on how recently our need to communicate tethered us to our homes and offices, subordinate to stationary devices like fixed-line telephones and desktop PCs. We now expect to be able to carry our office in our pocket or briefcase, and complain bitterly when wireless services let us down. Which they do of course, but that is another story . . .

"The second phase of the wireless revolution will be much more exacting (and possibly much more expensive) than the first," I wrote in that special issue.

"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 90s," I quoted then FrontRange Solutions global CEO Dana Buys as saying. "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 told readers. 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.

At the time, most of the wireless applications under development respected conventional business preoccupations, with a focus on business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-employee (B2E) communications. Banks, for one, were realizing that with huge numbers of their high-net-worth clients owning mobile phones, introducing mobile services would be a good way to keep customers. And wireless access had already opened cross-selling opportunities, including share dealing, credit cards, quotes, media content and m-commerce.

A survey at the time by CIO (US) had found that, among the 170 IT executives using wireless in their organizations, 38 percent were focused on employee-oriented applications rather than B2B or business-to-consumer (B2C) tie-ins. Respondents saw support applications like e-mail, personal productivity, sales force automation and calendar and scheduling as the main focus of their mobile development efforts.

Analysts, meanwhile, were much more excited about the potential for exploiting B2C applications, with Gartner Group praising the promises of B2B and B2C m-commerce. Gartner said these would rest on many services including vertically specialized news and alerts, business process status information, e-mail, maintenance alerts, CRM, mobile employee applications, field service, sales support and remote management. Alerts (including price) and time-sensitive news, messaging, basic location-specific information and marketing, and microsales and e-tickers and tokens, would drive B2B and B2C services.

Back in 2001, active wireless applications were running a gamut of technology protocols and standards, with US mobile/cellular phone leader code division multiple access (CDMA) and wireless application protocol (WAP) topping the list. Wireless-enabled PDAs, such as the Palm and BlackBerry (which was still a few years away from arriving on these fair shores), were already the devices of choice, ahead of pagers and digital and analog mobile phones.

However, it was also already clear that a wireless world would not come without some costs, and would pose large headaches for already hard-pressed CIOs. System integration, security, end-user support, reliability . . . CIOs could leave not one of the usual concerns of the IT shop behind with those fixed line phones and desktop devices. Especially security. As employees and executives increasingly sought access to corporate data from their mobile devices, security was already proving a major concern.

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It was obvious the toughest challenges for CIOs would revolve around ways to improve employee and customer service effectiveness. Less obvious was whether there was genuine potential for savings from a corporate investment in wireless technology, even as experts insisted they offered big opportunities to improve customer service and boost the bottom line.

It was a time of savage cost cutting, so it is not surprising that Australian businesses were eyeing mobile's potential to help them raise productivity, cut inventory, promote sales and further build customer relationships. The clouds on the horizon all had to do with widespread dissatisfaction with the infrastructure, portal offerings and devices.

"The biggest things people are concerned with right now are the cost because of the time you're online, and the security of the connection," IDC Australia research manager Joel Martin said back in 2001. "Those are the two biggest impediments to mobile e-commerce. If you can imagine entering all that data on, say, a credit transaction on the phone, you're being charged by the minute as well as having to enter all this information. So those are the two largest inhibitors worldwide."

Always on Arrives

Fast forward to 2006 and mobility has become a major preoccupation for many businesses, with "mobility strategies" taking a key place on the corporate to-do list. Mobile phones, PDAs and wireless computers breed like rabbits. We communicate with one another from anywhere at any time, carrying portable offices in our pockets or our briefcases. Yes, our wireless signals often get lost inside large buildings and our mobile phones cannot always get a signal, but at least we can travel the globe without having to lose touch with our PAs, colleagues and partners.

A recent Computerworld article cited Telstra projections that 98 percent of the population will have access to 3G mobile services once it aggregated its GSM and CDMA networks. This will open a new era in mobile application adoption, according to group managing director of Telstra product management Holly Kramer.

The article quoted Kramer's keynote address at this year's Wireless Australia summit in Sydney. She told her audience more than 2000 corporates are already using wireless e-mail, signalling its acceptance by enterprise IT departments. The venerable BlackBerry - once a "luxury of the corporate elite" - is becoming more pervasive down the ladder. "[This year] will be a landmark year for wireless in Australia [and will] define wireless broadband services," Kramer said. "Traditionally, it has been fat wireless pipes, but it now expands many aspects of wireless service delivery."

Kramer said business services, including messaging and vertical applications, were becoming critical to reaching customers in new ways, such as mobile EFTPOS payments. "Wireless e-mail will become more pervasive [and] 3G cellular technology is the next step on this path," she said, adding that by 2010 more than 45 percent of the population would have 3G-capable phones. "The more work we can do to build network redundancy and SLAs for business customers the more acceptable it will become."

Kramer predicted wireless would play a central role in business as it became more pervasive and featured in next-generation PDAs and mobile phones. This, and the continuing evolution of wireless broadband devices, she said, would put pressure on carriers to deliver.

However, the challenges for CIOs remain, not least because of the broadness of the wireless umbrella. Mobile computing runs a gamut of technologies, from wireless hand-held devices, to mobile applications, wireless networks, VoIP over Wi-Fi and even RFID. CIOs have to make crucial decisions about virtual and collaborative technologies such as presence and instant messaging, which enable remote workers to be more productive. And the security issues remain.

Wireless technologies from RFID to 802.11 were among the top IT issues aired at a recent National Manufacturing Week show in the US.

"The capacity for devices to communicate is a hugely under-exploited opportunity," Deloitte noted recently. "Connecting these devices could yield many real and potentially lucrative opportunities in both the consumer and business sectors. For consumers, adding connectivity to a range of devices makes all the devices more valuable and useful. For businesses, remote data collection, monitoring and reporting - which are already feasible - can improve efficiency and responsiveness."

CIOs know it. They also know there is still a rocky road ahead.