IBM Corp. is promoting a concept that it says will one day allow its divisions to work toward seamless connectivity. But some analysts say even if IBM builds the technology, the customers may not come.

Fluid computing, as Big Blue refers to it, is an umbrella term describing how both mobile and stationary computing devices could one day interact with one another, a concept that flows through personal computing, software and mainframes, said Harry Wttewaall, national ThinkPad specialist at IBM Canada Ltd. in Markham, Ont.

Wttewaall says the standard personal digital assistant (PDA) is an example of cumbersome technology that could benefit from fluid computing. “If we think of our PDA, we are storing two copies of information, so we always have to update one copy and make sure that it is the most current. You come back to your desk, you synchronize your PDA and off you go,” Wttewaall said. “What we are trying to do is really break that linkage where you are required to have two copies of the information.”

An example of fluid computing in action would be that of a store owner browsing in a competitor’s store. The owner quickly realizes that the competitor’s prices are lower than his. He takes out his PDA, brings up the price list for his store and lowers the prices. Because the competitors store is not set up for wireless connectivity, however, the information is stored in the owner’s PDA until he enters a wireless zone.

Herein lies the first obstacle blocking the flow of fluid computing. To give the store owner incentive to key the info into his PDA, and not wait until he returns to the office to enter the data, there would have to be a convenient way for the owner to become wirelessly connected to his network and exchange the new information with all of his other computing devices. That would, in-turn, change the store’s price list in less time than it would take him to drive back to his store.

Wttewaall said the key to making this seamless connectivity possible and allow for “the ultimate fluid computing experience” would be to make everything, including stoplights, wired for wireless access.

He added that companies such as Dell Computer Corp. and Vancouver-based wireless Internet access providers Fat Port Corp. need to continue to create so-called “hot spots” – small, geographically defined areas where connectivity is enabled – for the technology to reach its full potential.

But one Gartner analyst said the thought of making stoplights equipped for wireless access is “ridiculous,” and an economically difficult idea that would take over 25 years to turn into a reality.

“It doesn’t make sense because there are communication methods that don’t require that. The economics of what they are talking about is off-kilter because there are wireless communication systems that don’t require that degree of localization of the communication system,” said Ken Dulaney, vice-president of mobile computing at Gartner Group Inc.

Although it is clear that people want to move around and use different communication methods and different devices while using the same source applications, not everybody wants to do everything in every location, he added.

“If you are in a car, there’s not much you can do. Browsing the Internet and consuming lots of bandwidth, even if you had it available, you probably couldn’t use it. So depending on what you’re doing, it only needs limited amounts of bandwidth. Most people will leave most of the heavy things for when they are back at their office,” Dulaney said.

Although Wttewaall agrees that such widespread wireless connectivity is still some years away, he said that shouldn’t take away from the fact that IBM is dedicated to its fluid computing vision.

“If you don’t know where you’re going then you’re never going to get there, but if you have a vision of where you want to get to

even though it may be 10 years out

at least [we] have a direction that we are going towards,” Wttewaall said.

To another analyst, the question of whether users really want this type of technology is the next major roadblock facing IBM’s strategy.

There are some industries that could benefit from the seamless connectivity that fluid computing promises, said Christopher Fletcher, vice-president and managing director of Aberdeen Group Inc. in San Jose, Calif. These “down-to-earth” applications include inventory management and control, said Fletcher, adding that the average user may not have the desire for this technology.

Fletcher said that by adopting the fluid computing moniker, IBM is trying to get a much broader marketing message across, which implies that people as well as devices and applications are all interconnected and continuously share information, a concept that may not be the case for many users.

He added that even if the technology was available to allow users to get the same information on all computing devices, the chances that a person would have more than one or two different devices on them at any given time, or that they would need the information on more than one device isn’t likely.

Wttewaall said that another key reason IBM is developing its fluid computing tools is to help simplify the process of connecting wirelessly. He said that users are often struggling to make sense of when they can and can’t connect to a wireless network.

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