Look ma, no wires

“Beam me up Scotty” is probably the pinnacle of the wireless world, and while that peak is still a ways off the mountain itself is steadily being climbed.

Science fiction is rapidly becoming fact. In Singapore people are buying pop from machines using their cell phones, most home appliances will have computer chips in them soon, and the idea that your fridge may one day call to let you know you are low on eggs is not so unimaginable now.

However, Richard Lee, a partner with the communications industry practice at Deloitte Consulting in Toronto, is not very fond of these sci-fi dreams. “We could do it tomorrow,” he admitted. “But is anyone going to pay for it? Those things will come but I’m not a fan of some of those wackier ideas.”

He suggested that the truest consumer uses for the emerging wireless phenomenon will be for security or location devices – possibly in cars to fight theft.

Lee noted there is a potential for wireless to be used as tracking devices on children. “They could wear them as jewellery, particularly if you make them fashionable.”

According to Lee, wireless devices are actually thought of as fashion accessories in many European cities, and he hopes Canada catches up soon.

“I’m surprised that they are not as fashionable. In Europe and Asia, people buy all sorts of add-ons – carrying cases, different face plates.”

Not that he thinks this will be the strongest selling feature for wireless technology. He said service providers have to look for the killer app.

“Teenage girls sending each other postcards or good night e-mails aren’t going to make you a lot of money,” he said. “I think it will follow the same pattern as the Internet. The first activity is in the consumer space and there is a lot of flurry there. But the real money is in the [business-to-business] space.”

Pam Norton agreed that the first push will come from the youth market and the phone side. She also concurred that advances in wireless are on par with the path the Internet took to earn its fame.

Norton, product manager of Internet products and services for Compaq Canada in Mississauga, Ont., said the Internet started out very text-based and data-focused and then moved on to incorporate graphics and media, and that parallels the route the wireless Internet is taking.

“The speed of the network is a really big issue,” she said.

Luc Tremblay, principle sales consultant for Oracle Canada in Montreal, can’t wait for the high-speed access he knows is just around the corner.

“Whenever I am explaining to my family or friends what wireless technology will do I tell them about a small competition I have with my brother-in-law. We both play around a bit on the stock market, and try to best each other. When he comes over to our house, he will say, ‘So, how are your stocks doing?’ I then go to my laptop, boot it up, connect to the Internet and access the portal where I keep my stock information. It is a 20 minute process,” he said. “I always tell people that right now the Internet portal is somewhere I go when I have 20 minutes, the wireless Internet is somewhere I will go when I have 20 seconds.”

Star Trek wishes

Wireless can inspire some fantastic dreams for the future.

Tremblay said a person’s wireless device will become the remote control for that person’s life.

“It will be your wallet, your garage door opener, your security system. You will be able to use it to turn up the heat in your house before you get home,” he said. “This is going to become a reality. Everything is getting so miniaturized these days you could easily put a wireless chip inside a wristwatch.”

Alex Thatcher, wireless product manager for Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, Calif., hopes the always-on always connected model will continue to drive the wireless industry. “I would like to see that people can be cheaply connected in that always-on infrastructure, but when you move to that unconnected state it becomes invisible to the user. When it disconnects, it should not be a headache,” Thatcher said.

Norton suggested a nice perk would be the ability to watch a movie on her PDA while traveling. “From a corporate perspective, to be able to do everything mobile that I can do at the office,” she said, adding that the consumer leisure uses are unlimited.

Kelly Kanellakis suggested that video and audio would top most people’s wish list. “But I think the CIO is looking to wireless to solve business problems, to save time. This opens up even more global meetings through wireless devices, and shared information over the wireless Internet or intranet,” said Kanellakis, director of technology for Canada at Entarasys in Mississauga, Ont.

Lee is jealous that Europeans can download tunes to use as ring sounds for their phones. “I’d like to be able to download music into my in-car MP3 player, wirelessly. If you hear a song you really like on the radio, you can go to your favourite MP3 portal, pay your fee and download that song.”

Lexmark’s Andrew Kiss wished for the ability to share a real-time event.

“When we have an experience, we can explain it, we can write it down, but how about if I can use a wireless device to take a picture and send it someone?”

Kiss, product manager for Lexmark’s business printers division in Richmond Hill, Ont., also stressed the important role wireless will play in location solutions. “If you’re in the mall trying to locate friends, you will be able to dial up their devices and see where they are.” He also pointed to the importance this type of technology could have for finding missing children.

Kiss, like Tremblay, liked the idea of dialling your house to turn the heat up.

“But even better,” he said, “perhaps when I am a certain distance from home my device would ask if I wanted the heat turned up and, even better, understand the answer.”

On a more down-to-earth note, Norton would like to see more integration of current solutions into wireless devices.

“We need to facilitate the movement of software. Things like Siebel, Oracle SAP, people want to be able to take those solutions on the road,” she said.

Tremblay believes that push will ultimately come from the consumers, “who will see that yes, they can access the Internet from anywhere and access stock information and their banking information, but not work processes. That will be the push for corporations into taking wireless seriously.”

Lee noted that companies, especially service providers, also have to find and define their role in wireless technology.

“The network service provider would rather not be relegated to being just the service provider,” he stated. “When I am looking at my Samsung phone, it has Internet, it has Yahoo, but where is Bell, where is Rogers? What role do they play?”

He questioned whether the service providers should carry content, or should they be sitting in the background providing a portal or a platform on which others reside.

“The same questions apply for the B2B space. What extent are they providing applications like SAP or Siebel? Should the carriers be developing those kinds of partnerships? At this point, no one seems to have a definite answer,” he said.

Kanellakis noted that whatever niche companies find for themselves, wireless must be ubiquitous.

“Wireless needs to start showing up in devices automatically,” he stated. “Wireless needs to continue permeating everyday life in order for everyone to understand it and be comfortable with it.”

Tremblay also mentioned voice navigation over the wireless Internet as a practical application.

A new big blue

No one could ever really take the “Big Blue” moniker from IBM but there is another blue in town and, in wireless land, it has a pretty big reputation.

Bluetooth is a short-range radio technology which will enable devices to communicate with one another and the ‘net wirelessly…hopefully.

Lexmark recently demonstrated wireless printing using Bluetooth technology, according to Kiss.

Norton is looking forward to the day that Bluetooth will be installed in not only her personal digital assistant, but also in her phone, which will allow her to use the phone as a portal.

“And with the speed of Bluetooth, it certainly won’t be a bottleneck,” she said.

Tremblay predicted that Bluetooth will bring about a personal area network, and Thatcher said Bluetooth will be the most widely adopted technology when it gets here, “probably by the end of the year.”

But Lee cautioned that Bluetooth may not be all it’s cracked up to be. “I don’t think (wireless) is about a specific technology,” he said. “Bluetooth is interesting. But no one knows if that is the final answer. Is it like the minidisc – the technology was interesting but it fell by the wayside.”

He urged people to experiment with all available technologies on the market, or coming to the market.

“I don’t think I would encourage my customers to invest completely in anything yet, but I would say they should definitely learn about them.”

Get ready for 4G

The world of wireless is right now introducing post second-generation products (called 2.5G), with most companies awaiting the release of 3G solutions.

Norton offered her “layman’s definition” of 2.5G and 3G.

“2G is what we have today. With 2.5G, the main difference is that it’s packet data vs. circuit data. The implication there is that you can have always-on technology with that,” she said.

She added people can use this type of technology to be constantly sending and receiving without chewing up time on a network.

“Right now you turn a device on; soon you won’t have to do that,” she said, noting Rogers has announced they will have GPRS, a standard for wireless communications that runs at speeds of up to 150Kbps, ready for June. GPRS will be the first 2.5G-ranked technology in Canada, according to Norton.

“3G is the higher bandwidth, the ability to do more multi-media, streaming stuff. We’ve become such an information society that the ability to have it right here right now is just key to competitive advantage,” she noted. “In an enterprise space, it’s going to be a requirement in terms of staying ahead of the game.”

Lee noted that in terms of 2.5G and 3G technology, the applications become a much more important part of the value proposition.

“Things like network reliability, packages, the terminal, all those things become table stakes. You can’t play here unless you’ve got coverage, and reliable coverage.”

He said customers will value and pay for the applications and the content. “I need a 3G network to deliver that solution, so I embrace 3G. Telecommunications is an industry characterized by change. 3G is not the end. I am already hearing about 4G.”