Enterprises approach wireless with caution

A few years ago, if you had been inclined to ask an analyst or a developer about what the world of wireless would look like by now, you might have heard tales about streaming video over cell phones and the obsolescence of the desktop.

Partly because nobody could have predicted the pickle that the telecom industry has recently found itself in and partly because of the lack of availability of high bandwidth networks, the wireless industry hasn’t unfolded exactly as expected.

Graham Wideman, an IT consultant and wireless application developer in San Diego, suggested that somewhere along the line, wireless development missed a crucial step.

“The overarching atmosphere in the world of wireless is that there had been quite an expectation that we were going to get to the next generation sometime soon. We all expected cheap, super-high bandwidth by now, but over the last couple of years it’s been clear that that’s not going to be arriving in a hurry,” he said.

According to Isaac Ro, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, wireless is still a high priority for most enterprises, but until the economy takes off again the industry is sitting in the calm before the storm. He said that while many enterprises are dabbling in pilot programs for specific applications, it’s a slow and steady process.

“In this economic environment, if it’s not the top priority, it’s on the shelf,” he said, stressing that unless a return on investment can be clearly quantified, wireless purchases are being put on hold.

Nick Keates, associate director of wireless Internet business development at Bell Canada in Mississauga, Ont., agreed that ROI is the deal maker – or deal breaker – for most enterprises.

“Everyone’s talking about ROI – it’s crucial. There’s not a lot of disposable money in today’s economy, but companies are still interested,” Keates said. “It’s a kind of baby step mentality.”

Both Keates and Ro said that the current reality of wireless applications in the enterprise revolves around personal information management (PIM), which includes e-mail, calendar, and contact lists, although other types of applications appeal to certain vertical industries.

“CRM, sales force automation, field services and field force management are really low hanging fruit for some verticals, and while some are jumping after it, it’s not happening en masse yet,” Ro said.

Steve Rodin, president and co-founder of Davinci Technologies Inc. in Toronto sees a bit of a conundrum in the wireless world.

“There’s a bit of a chicken and egg factor right now. Wireless operators aren’t rolling out the faster networks as quickly as some thought that they would. Part of it is that they don’t want to roll out the networks without applications to run on them, and developers don’t want to develop the applications without the networks,” Rodin said.

According to Wideman, many developers have created applications to run on 3G networks, but have had to sit on them.

“People haven’t stopped imagining and anticipating the things that we could do with enough bandwidth, and a lot of developers jumped the gun and are left with pent up applications that aren’t going to be used anytime soon,” he said.

This calm before the predicted storm is not going to last long, Ro said.

“I expect that devices will get interesting within the next 12 months, and that on the application side, we’re going to see more of a push for wireless from vendors like SAP, Microsoft and Siebel,” he said. “I also expect that by this time next year there will be better coverage for 2.5G and better application support for devices.”