Distributors and vendors agree that, while it is not always easy for resellers to provide services based around the much hyped new wireless technologies, it is possible, especially if they can sell the benefits.
Andy Shepperd, general manager of networking for distributor Computer 2000, said: "There has certainly been an increase in small businesses whose owners are eager to, and often capable of, harnessing the latest technologies - as long as they can be certain of helpful advice."
"Small firms are often more adventurous than large ones, and can be absolutely cutting edge because they see the potential for gaining immediate competitive advantage over corporate competitors, which take longer to adapt and train," he continued.
But Shepperd added: "It's a difficult time all round for resellers, customers and ourselves as the rate of advancement is relentless. There's a danger that devices will be obsolete even before users have really got to grips with them."
He also believes that it is hard to assess what the next wave of technology will be. Last year was particularly difficult because, while a lot of developments were taking place behind the scenes, many did not appear on the market as quickly as expected. This was due mainly to a lack of back-up in areas such as carrier services.
Alastair Martin, marketing manager for the northern region at IBM subsidiary Tivoli, explained that many companies "have very little time to figure out how to integrate these technologies into their current business models before they become obsolete. Getting a return on IT investment before a new improved technology comes along can sometimes prove impossible."
But Russell Berry, managing director at data cabling and infrastructure firm Netcomm Systems Integration, believes the industry is starting to wake up to the benefits of wireless technology. "We are mainly quoting for linking buildings, but wireless will doubtless extend to the point when it needs only one person to monitor and control a range of production or process machinery," he said.
Certainly, installing cable-free local area networks (Lans) in and between buildings appears to have been a popular phenomenon in all walks of life. In Silicon Valley, for example, teenagers now hold 'Lan parties' to play computer games.
The technology has also had a major impact on niche markets such as healthcare. For example, it enables staff to wheel hospital computers to patients' bedsides to view X-rays and read and update records, including what drug has been administered, when and in what dosage, all of which has the potential to reduce fatal errors. When wireless routers become available, GPs may even be able to access patients' records during home visits.
Faran Aziz, managing consultant at CSC, considers that the introduction of location-based service (LBS) software into mobile computers will also be useful. "It could be possible for someone with a health risk to alert a medical service if they develop complications, and for that service to locate the nearest appropriate specialist," he explained.
But he warned that there could be a darker side to the use of the technology. "Employers would be able to identify the whereabouts of employees. That's fine if LBS is used to locate the nearest engineer to a breakdown, but users must have a right to turn off their LBS, although that could still be a problem if they are supposedly on duty."
Wireless technology is also being used increasingly in the manufacturing space, for example to fine tune just-in-time ordering by keeping track of how many components have been used. In fact, wireless devices can be used to monitor and control just about any production process as long as there is no risk of radio interference. Wireless routers, when available, will also make it possible to manage production off site without the need for a wired network.
Because the whole wireless technology sector is taking off so rapidly, distributors such as Enta Technologies have created dedicated teams to deal with every brand of device they promote. This currently comprises 3Com and D-Link products, but Bluetooth-based kit, which transfers data over radio frequencies, will be added by the end of the first quarter.
Simon Hool, Enta's e-communications technology product manager, said: "Wireless is a major emerging technology and it will accelerate as increasing competition drives down prices. I think we will also see a rapid development of capability. In the second quarter, they will probably introduce a wireless router, enabling people to monitor and control equipment over long distances. Currently, the Lan range is between 91 metres for 3Com and 120 metres for D-Link."
Bill Rhodes, senior category manager for connectivity at distributor Ingram Micro, added: "Bluetooth prices will come down as competition builds, and I expect the range to increase to at least 100 metres before long. We will see increased business use for such items as computer peripherals, then personal area networks will enter the home to control virtually everything. It could have a big impact on the way people manage their lives."
Improved transfer speeds
But because it is likely to be a long time before the industry comes up with a replacement technology to wireless, data transfer speeds are likewise sure to improve. Devices can currently transfer data at 11Mbps which is slightly faster than standard wired ethernet, but this is expected to increase to 56Mbps in the near future. This means they should be able to handle more bandwidth-hungry applications such as video.
Distributor XMA, however, which sells Cisco Aironet and 3Com AirConnect products, has already discovered a ready market in the shape of schools trying to comply with the UK government's edict that every child should have a networked laptop.
Trevor Garner, XMA's network product manager, said the company is also receiving enquiries from colleges that want to introduce adult education to rural communities, but be able to remove equipment when classes are over to avoid vandalism. The same concept could be used to reduce break-in costs for health centres.
"I don't see organisations ripping out existing cables, but wireless would save further cabling and is certainly the most economical option for connecting buildings. As Bluetooth develops, it will also have an economic impact by saving on manpower," he said.
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