IBM goes full-throttle with wireless technologies

Officials at IBM Corp. made a slate of wireless and mobile computing announcements Monday, including a new colour-screen handheld and another in a line of ThinkPad laptops with antennas integrated inside for wireless LAN access. The company also announced new wireless customers, partners and wireless systems administration tools.

IBM’s message was decidedly upbeat despite admissions by company officials that some U.S. business customers are pushing them for proof that wireless projects will be productive and practical amid harder economic times when companies are announcing layoffs and unimpressive earnings.

“One year ago, nobody wanted justification for wireless,” said Val Rashmani, general manager for global wireless solutions at IBM. But today, IT managers are telling IBM they have to “see justification to do” a wireless project or trial, she added.

Rick McGee, IBM’s vice-president of mobile brand marketing, said the economic downturn has a silver lining. “These times give IT managers time to prove projects. They don’t have to bring out a wireless project until it is stable,” he said.

Even though last year there was a “lot of hype about wireless, particularly in Europe,” Rashmani also said, “wireless is now at the point where it’s no longer early adopters . . . it’s poised for mass takeoff.” A London native, she recently took over her U.S.-based post after heading wireless operations for IBM in Europe.

At a press conference, IBM introduced a new ThinkPad A22 laptop with an internal antenna for 802.11b LAN wireless access, to be available June 22. The company plans to roll out internal antennas to its ThinkPad T and X lines later this year, after announcing an internal antenna for the I line last September. An internal antenna means a user doesn’t have to provide a wireless LAN card, which sticks out the side and can be damaged or easily lost, IBM officials said. The LAN circuits in the new machines will be in a card permanently installed, and the antennas run along either side of the laptop screen on the interior.

Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Md., said IBM’s commitment to internal antennas for 802.11b is “one more indication that wireless access is sufficiently valuable.” The wireless LAN technology is catching on worldwide, and now 802.11b LANs are being erected in Cape Town and Helsinki, Finland, Reiter said.

The reasoning of computer manufacturers for building in such a feature is that “if it’s there, a user might use it,” which helps the manufacturer sell other services and devices, he said.

IBM also announced a new color handheld computer, the Workpad c505, that can work wirelessly with attachable modems from several makers.

Among new wireless customers, IBM said the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas plans to use IBM eServer iSeries systems for a pilot program to provide wireless check-in for guests. With the technology, clerks carrying handheld devices connected wirelessly to an IBM server would greet guests at six different hotel entry points with the goal of eliminating the need for a guest to wait in line. The clerk would also have a device on his belt to encode a room key card, IBM officials said.

Also, HypoVereinsbank in Germany has developed a Linux-based system management approach for its IBM eServer z900 mainframe that allows systems managers to use wireless phones and personal digital assistants to ensure constant uptime, IBM officials said. The eServer Wireless Remote Management technology allows system administrators to control networks from anywhere using commonplace portable devices over the Internet, IBM said.

Also yesterday, IBM said Chicago-based Andersen professional services announced it would expand its agreement with IBM to train 3,000 of its business consultants on IBM technology. Andersen officials said its U.S. business customers are working on a range of wireless projects, starting small with pilot programs involving 40 or more workers at a cost of US$200,000. The majority of Andersen clients are working on projects for enabling business-to-employee wireless applications, said David Bitner, director of partner alliances.