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The 10 Hottest Wireless Technologies of 2002

The 10 Hottest Wireless Technologies of 2002

Will 2002 finally be the year when wireless lives up to the hype surrounding it? Many industry insiders think so. Read on for an analysis of the 10 areas that hold the most promise.

Face it: for five years - or has it been ten? - every wireless year began with great, bold, exciting forecasts and, just as surely, every year ended with dashed expectations. This is as undeniable as the fact that today's cellphone carriers and manufacturers are limping, financially maimed shadows of the powerhouses they were just a few years ago. But guess what: this may still be the year when, finally, we see those big, transformational changes that pump new excitement into wireless.

"Wireless is definitely one of the top five concerns of corporate CIOs," says Dan Croft, a vice president at wireless data network operator Motient. "They are all thinking about it; most have been tasked with drafting a wireless strategy for their company." The upshot in Croft's view: momentum is growing that will lead to definitive progress in key wireless arenas this year.

Adds Adel Al-Saleh, GM of wireless e-business for IBM: "Wireless technologies let you do real work in real time wherever you are. Companies that are deploying wireless technologies are seeing productivity gains in the field."

The reason: the technology has quietly become more usable, more advanced, and definitely more a part of more lives.

Eric Chu, group manager, industry marketing at Sun, adds : "We are very bullish. Wireless for the U.S. will become real this year. Ask what's new and that's it: wireless is real. The pieces are falling into place."

Even handset makers express enthusiasm about the coming marketplace: "We are optimistic about the second half of 2002," says Philip Christopher, president of Audiovox Communications Corp. "The market will be attracted to higher speeds and that will lead to more interest in smarter phones and more applications."

"We are seeing wireless move from hype to reality in certain areas," agrees David Kerr, vice president in charge of wireless for Strategy Analytics. "We have shifted into third gear and we are seeing at least incremental improvements in some wireless areas."

Tote up the ballots and - according to a cross-section of industry heavyweights contacted by Wireless Business & Technology - we can look forward to tangible, near-term gains that will change how and where enterprise uses wireless technologies in 10 key areas. Such as?

1)    3G
You can almost hear the electric buzz because, throughout the wireless industry, there is rampant excitement about the fact that 2002 will see higher-speed networks penetrating much of the U.S. and, in the process, data transfer speeds over wireless networks will multiply from today's typical 9Kbps to 40K+. For sure, 40K+ is still not T1, but it's plenty fast enough for sending and receiving e-mails, streamlined images, and SMS.

Why haven't U.S. users flocked to wireless data services so far? Just use WAP to access e-mail from, say, AOL and watch the minutes tick by. It can easily take three (or more!) frustrating minutes just to get into the system and call up an e-mail. At that rate it's small wonder adoption has been so paltry.

That's all about to change, however. The nation's number-one carrier, Verizon, was first to launch what it bills as "3G" early in 2002, and that's provided enhanced data transfer services to customers in the Boston-Washington, DC corridor; San Francisco-Silicon Valley; Salt Lake City; Portland OR; and western New York State. Right now users in those regions are getting transfer speeds that rival that of a home modem (usually around 50K, up to 144K).

The better news: high-speed wireless networks are spreading fast. Verizon says it will flesh out its 3G offering across the nation during 2002 but Verizon isn't alone. Sprint, the number four carrier in terms of subscribers, says it will turn on its 3G network nationally this summer and both Cingular, the second largest carrier, and AT&T Wireless, the number-three carrier, say they, too, will roll out 3G during 2002.

A big vagary that might temper some optimism: pricing. So far carriers seem uncertain how they will price these 3G services and for good reason. No one has a clue what the market will bear. But if a marketplace sweet spot is found, just watch: enterprise customers in particular will rush to embrace 3G because people in business will no longer seriously dispute the proposition that an informed mobile workforce is the winning edge in most industries. And in the process, 3G will enable a growing number of high-powered uses of wireless pipe - including the transfer of lots more data. Keep reading.

2)    Data
Fatten up the wireless pipe and right away industry leaders begin scheming about ways to fill it up with wireless data - a huge profit center for European wireless carriers, but in the U.S., usage (and resulting profits) is scant. Verizon, Sprint, Cingular, AT&T - all the leading carriers - are hoping that 2002 will be the year wireless data becomes a must-have. Are they right?

Probably, at least in specific niches of particular industries. KPMG Consulting's John Delk, a wireless expert, for instance, expresses confidence that this year we'll see substantial adoption of wireless data by sales forces and field service workers in industries with a high need for informing a mobile workforce (he points to insurance companies and pharmaceuticals as cases in point). "For wireless data to proliferate, it has to make workers more productive," says Delk, and he says that this is the year leading-edge verticals will take the plunge: "We'll see this take off."

Richard Owen, CEO of mobile data pioneer AvantGo, echoes Delk's thinking. According to Owen, there will soon be sizable upticks in wireless data pertaining to sales force automation, supply-chain management, and field force automation. "Mobile data," adds Owen with an air of undeniable optimism, "is creeping back on to the enterprise agenda." Wireless data is becoming a "clipboard replacement," he says with a smile that suggests victory is nearer than skeptics predict.

Motient's Croft shares that feeling: "We are definitely optimistic because the user experience with wireless data is getting better and better. Every year people have said, 'this is the year of wireless data,' but this may be the year where that actually happens. Wireless data is closing the gap in the user experience, compared to wired data, and as that gap narrows, more users will opt for wireless data."

That makes perfect sense. For the most part, the wireless user's data experience has been "inferior" - Croft's word - but, between more feature-rich devices and fatter pipe, the experience is getting more felicitous. "We are seeing more apps that mimic a wired-line experience," says Croft.

But the first way wireless data shows up may be leaner still. That's because a key growth area, KPMG's Delk says, will likely be SMS. "The industry finally has figured out it was in the interest of all to cooperate. As we see more intercarrier operability, we'll see more SMS," says Delk, and big proof he's on the money is that AT&T, Sprint, and other carriers have been rushing to announce enterprise-oriented intercarrier SMS tools.

Jon Auerbach, a venture capitalist with Highland Capital Partners, cautions that "we shouldn't expect European levels of popularity for SMS here" - mainly because in the U.S. there is still much broader access to e-mail and the Internet - but he too, says "there will be growth in SMS here."

So don't sniff at SMS. Sure, its limitations are palpable, but it may turn out to be the training wheels that lead us into a wider use of wireless data. Receive a few SMS messages and, poof, the light bulb goes off: this phone works for data too!

3)    E911
Topping many lists of "this is the technology to watch," E911 location services are coming to a phone near you, quite possibly before year-end because already, Samsung (SPH-N300 on the Sprint network; a similar phone works with Verizon) and Audiovox (CDM-9100, with Sprint and Verizon) have phones on the store shelves and, meantime, carriers are scrambling to generate ways to pair up location readings with premium services.

"Know where someone is and you can really enrich the user experience," says KPMG's Delk. "Location tools let you take the user experience right down to who I am and where I am."

The core facts: GPS location services genuinely work, at least in areas where the cellular networks are of recent vintage, and the federal government has issued clear mandates requiring a phased rollout of E911 (by December 2005, 95% of handsets in use by customers must have built-in location abilities, per FCC rulings), although waivers have been granted that may well push deadlines out. Nonetheless, the FCC momentum is indisputable: an ever-growing number of handsets must have location services and that clock has already started its countdown (by June 2002, 50% of all new handsets that are activated have to have location abilities - but again, some carriers have won waivers so the exact deadline may not be firm).

"The first E911 phones are now hitting the market and we are seeing consumer interest," says Audiovox's Christopher, who indicates he expects steady market growth.

One fact however: probably GPS per se won't sell that many phones. It may be cool if the phone knows where you are - it may even be lifesaving in the event of an accident - but for the most part, it won't matter that much. However, "GPS may be just the tool that brings out a lot of apps. The U.S. has been a voice-centric wireless market, but GPS may help change that," says Arthur Gum, a QUALCOMM senior product manager involved with gpsOne, the company's location technology.

What apps will roll out with GPS? Jeremy Pemble, an AT&T Wireless spokesman, says that before 2002 closes, his company will unveil various location-based services including a wireless concierge (just ask the phone where the nearest sushi bar is and - because it knows where you are - it will quickly offer up options) and, intriguingly, a "friend finder" or mobile buddy list. The latter, with a few clicks on the phone keypad, will let a user see if pre-identified friends (or business associates) are nearby. Target market for the friend finder: initially, says Pemble, this will be marketed to teens (and their parents) but it takes little stretch of the imagination to see business users finding such tools to be invaluable in easily organizing impromptu meetings.

Bottomline: location-based services will begin to work a quiet revolution in 2002. Probably - almost certainly - the groundwork will be laid this year for an immense transformation (think how remarkable it is that a phone "knows" where you are). And because the FCC mandates this, there is no stopping this trend.

4)    Wi-Fi
You want something wireless to celebrate now? Clap your hands loud and shout "Wi-Fi" because 802.11b - the wireless way to network anything from a home to a huge office - is scorching. This is as "in" as a geeky technology can get because the benefits are so plain. It's lots cheaper than hard wiring a network (in almost all cases), and it is definitely easy to set up (and it works!). The stunning thing about Wi-Fi: this technology has soared upward with very little hype and much less promotion by manufacturers (compared to other heavily ballyhooed but often disappointing wireless plays). "The market is discovering the value of 802.11b on its own. Prices are falling, and people are seeing the value. There's tremendous potential in Wi-Fi," says Adam Sewell, a venture capitalist with ComVentures, "it's really taking off now."

"We're seeing more deployments in large enterprises now," adds Anthony Armenta, executive director of the Wireless LAN Association. "This is a mature, standards-based technology that suits a mobile workforce."

Case in point: pick up your wireless-enabled laptop, head into a conference room, and while you are waiting for the meeting to convene, you can still be responding to e-mail, surfing the Web, and staying productive. Wi-Fi gives Internet-era workers the potential for uninterrupted productivity and that is a sweet promise. Homes of course are busily installing Wi-Fi but, predicts Armenta, this year will be the start of a deep pentration of Wi-Fi into the enterprise. "That's the marketplace we are looking at now," he says.

Key early adopter markets: hospitals and hotels, says Ben Guderian, director of marketing for SpectraLink, a wireless telephony manufacturer. "These are big customers - but anyone with a high need for mobile access to data will become a customer."

5)    Machine to Machine
Stay tuned Matrix fans. Ordinarily we focus on what's coming down the pike for us, but just maybe, big stuff will soon happen that simply cuts humans out of the loop. At least IBM is predicting a huge uptick in machine-to-machine wireless communications, according to Dean Douglas, a senior IBM manager: "We expect a wider rollout of machine-to-machine wireless communications later this year."

Case in point: in a pilot with Shell Oil, IBM has concocted a way to take readings of underground gasoline storage tanks and, when they need a refill, the system wirelessly and automatically sends a message to home base. "This technology addresses the question of how to manage a complex environment - a service station, for instance - in the face of high turnover," says Douglas. "Our solution allows for remote management."

Even cooler: at an "East Coast university" - Douglas declines to identify the school because the program remains a pilot - a wireless convenience store has been created. Students can buy snacks, pens, tissue paper, the usual gamut of merchandise and, to pay, they swipe their student ID card and the bill gets added to their student account. Meantime, the wireless infrastructure is keeping tabs on inventories and, let's say, just before exams there's a ferocious run on Joe Camel or NoDoz or whatever. A fast, wireless call goes out for more inventory. So far, says Douglas, this test is going smoothly and, he adds, IBM is thrilled that a college is in this picture because "we expect the students to test us, to challenge us," and in this way IBM will get early warning about possible weaknesses in the setup.

A third wireless machine-to-machine test bed: "We are now operating an unattended coffee shop in a major museum. Patrons pay with a swipe of their credit card," says Douglas. "We are showing that [it can work] in these environments."

A big plus of these machine-to-machine for-instances: they are not necessarily cool or sexy, but "they are solving client business problems. We are showing that wireless can deliver a genuine ROI and when clients see that - when they see their business problems cost-effectively solved - they will adopt the technology," says Douglas.

6)    Smart Phones
Don't laugh even though it's tempting to greet this prediction with loud titters. Of course, year in, year out, we have heard that smart phones would soon have their way and also of course manufacturers dumped ungainly, ugly, hard-to-use bricks on the market and all except for the most addicted early adopters flat-out ignored these expensive monstrosities.

Do smartened up wireless devices now make good sense? "Over the next 12 months you'll see a large deployment of smart phones," says Mike Yonker, chief technologist, wireless computing for Texas Instruments. "This is becoming much more economically and technologically feasible and, importantly, carriers will be pushing higher-end phones like mad to unstop the data pipeline."

That's a shrewd insight. Terrific improvements in data pipelines will go unused unless users upgrade their handsets - so it's a safe bet that carriers (traditionally shy when it came to promoting pricier phones) will at long last begin to entice users to spend a few dollars to upgrade to more powerful, data-capable phones.

"Higher [wireless network] speeds will result in more sales of smart phones," agrees Audiovox's Christopher, whose company this year has been throwing its marketing weight behind innovative handsets, including one with a full-color screen and another that builds in Pocket PC tools and capabilities. He adds: "We do feel there will be more people interested in upgrading handsets to access new features."

Expect too, that new-generation smarter phones will divide into two clumps. There will be a sizable group (with end-user prices from $100-$300) that are still primarily phones, but will do at least one or two tricks very well - such as snapping pix (with a built-in camera - "this will be very hot this year," says Christopher) or downloading and playing MP3 files, or perhaps there's a beefed-up scheduler or GPS.

The other group (priced upward of $300) will be full-fledged converged devices that unite PDA functionality (e-mail, address book, calendar, and more) with a cellphone. Winning wide market attention are Handspring (with its Treo), RIM (with a new, voice-capable BlackBerry), and Kyocera (with a phone that provides the full functionality of a Palm), but literally dozens of device manufacturers have similar models in production or at least in advanced design phases.

Question: Will executives flock to buy these devicesŠthis year? One way to answer that question is that today's technology actually works and the devices are sleek, slick, and highly usable. Will that translate into big sales? Manufacturers are optimistic if cautiously so, and our bet is that as the year progresses and the economy keeps strengthening and the wireless networks keep adding capabilities, more executives will, in fact, vote with their wallets and opt for the undeniable convenience offered by unified devices.

7)    Java
Five of the six leading U.S. carriers openly endorse Java," says Sun's Eric Chu (the exception is Verizon) and, what's more, Chu projects that, globally, Java will soon be on "18-20 million handsets. We simply are dominating in this market."

It's hard to puncture holes in Chu's enthusiasm. Java is a big, bright spot in the wireless market. Oh, it's not easy to see exactly how or if Sun has succeeded in bringing in bags of cash as a result of its J2ME play, but there's still no arguing that when application developers have a choice, they are opting to work within a Java environment. It's already present on most Nextel phones (around 1.3 million by Chu's estimate), it's due to start popping up on Sprint phones soon, and by all accounts isn't long removed from AT&T and Cingular handsets. "Fifteen device manufacturers are already shipping Java-enabled phones and more will be signing up," says Chu. "The handsets are already on the market."

For end users this may be an invisible victory - that is, most may remain clueless that it's Java that is providing the infrastructure that allows other apps to run. But, for sure, when this year's wireless winners are crowned, give a big hand to Sun and Java for providing the engine that is letting phones become ever more useful and powerful.

8)    Always-on GPRS Connections
What RIM's BlackBerry shows is that always-on connections are attractive to users," says KPMG's Delk. He adds: "In the next 12-18 months we will see a bunch of capabilities around always-on coming to market - new services, new devices, new applications." In fact, Delk's guess is that the bottom-line selling point of what carriers now are billing as 3G won't prove to be the speeds (which seem destined to fall far short of the 144K many analysts set as a minimum for true 3G), but the fact that, in most (possibly all) cases, these will offer always-on data retrieval. And as BlackBerry proves, when the right data is pushed to a user - even at slow, 9.6 speeds - the user will welcome it.

The next-wave 3G networks will offer much faster throughput speeds so watch: the rush to offer users pushed data via always-on pipe will intensify as the year goes on. By year end, anybody with any kind of claim to being an early technology adopter will carry this capability in her or his pocket. "For many people it's genuinely useful," says Delk.

9)    GSM
When Ball State University professor Steve Jones looks around he says there's lots to buzz about with wireless - 3G, 802.11b, the usual suspects - but "bigger news would be the infrastructure change by AT&T Wireless and Cingular to GSM." Strange factoid: no other expert mentioned that, but Jones may be on to something. When AT&T and Cingular join VoiceStream as GSM-based carriers, suddenly that predominantly European standard gains real currency in the U.S. market and it becomes a threat to CDMA (whose network operators could rightly sniff at AT&T's TDMA network as creaky, dated, erratic, but GSM isn't so easy to ignore). GSM of course enables better data transfer and its carriers are also able to easily provide users with true "world phone" capabilities. The only hitch: time frames for rollout of national GSM networks by AT&T Wireless and Cingular are anyone's guess. But when they get those networks running, GSM will, suddenly, start winning lots more mindshare and, for international travelers, a GSM phone may well become a must-have.

10)    Bluetooth
No, we haven't been sleeping in a cave and, yes, we know there's wide skepticism that Bluetooth will ever live up to its once grand promises. But listen to Strategy Analytics' Kerr: "Bluetooth has been slower to come to market than once expected, but we believe it is now becoming a hot topic."

Seconding that sentiment is Troy Holtby, product manager for Bluetooth at 3Com. "The first Bluetooth products are coming on the market, and with Bluetooth you can do what you've been doing with cables."

3Com in fact is debuting cards that will retrofit laptops with Bluetooth capabilities and, from there, it's easy to link a computer with a Bluetooth-enabled printer (already available from HP) or a Bluetooth phone (from Ericsson).

"Within a minute you can enable wireless printer sharing, for instance, without all the cables," says Holtby.

An even smarter case in point: Holtby was in a car driving from an airport to a hotel - but nobody in the group had thought to acquire directions. So he fired up his laptop, used Bluetooth to link it to his cellphone, then (using the phone as a wireless modem), logged onto MapQuest and had turn-by-turn directions within a minute. "This is a big time-saver and it boosts productivity," says Holtby.

Who Can Turn That Down?
Bluetooth's only real hurdle: winning any kind of public notice in a year when the market will be flooded with highly usable, affordable, possibly even fun wireless devices and services - because 2002 is shaping up as the year wireless becomes a true "must-have" for things other than voice. Stay tuned because this will be a fun year to watch.

More Stories By Robert McGarvey

Robert McGarvey has covered the Web since 1994 for magazines ranging from "Technology Review" to "Upside." He is the author of the best-selling book "How To DotCom" and a contributing writer to various SYS-CON publications, including Wireless Business & Technology and Web Services Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]

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