While the arrival of the car massively increased people's freedom of movement, the mobile phone has enabled users to keep in touch when exercising that freedom.
Released from the constraints of fixed-line communications, many businesses are enjoying significant benefits from the mobile phone revolution.
But although mobile voice communication is undoubtedly useful, people are finding that they also need data communications technology to perform their jobs effectively when on the move. As a result, in today's 'wired' world, the modern business uses a wide variety of datacom-based offerings such as email, ecommerce and e-tail.
So it is not surprising that demand for mobile datacoms is on the increase. In essence, wireless datacoms rely on one of two completely different technologies: infrared or radio. Each has its own particular benefits and drawbacks, so they are generally targeted at different applications and markets.
Most people are familiar with basic infrared-based communications devices because the technology is used in television and video remote controls, where an invisible beam of light sends and receives signals. But the same principle can be used to transmit and receive streams of data between devices.
Infrared's most common use is as a mechanism for wireless printing, where a notebook PC, for example, can connect to an infrared-equipped printer.
The main advantages are that infrared is very cheap to implement and simple to set up and use. But it has a limited range (typically no more than 10 metres) and also requires a clear line of sight between the two communicating devices.
Infrared has also been used as a means of providing wireless networking, but the limitations that it imposes have made it inadequate for use with all but the smallest local area networks (Lans) in the same room.
Sending the wrong signals
But while infrared has initially proved useful as a fairly simple method of providing wireless data communication, most people in the industry believe its days are numbered.
Michael Wall, a research analyst at Frost and Sullivan, believes infrared is now well past its sell-by date. "There can be little doubt that the Infrared Data Association has done much to promote the benefits of infrared, but its efforts have met with limited success. There is now a strong feeling that infrared may be about to be confined to the dustbin of bright ideas that never quite lived up to their potential," he said.
Radio is a far better tool for media transmission because it provides both a greater range (typically between 30 and 300 metres) and does not need a line of sight to work. Given the right circumstances, a radio signal can pass through walls, ceilings and floors, making it far more flexible and useful.
Unfortunately, when it comes to using radio on Lans, there are a lot of competing technologies and different standards available. Some of the more widely known are Bluetooth, HomeRF, HiperLAN and Dect, but such choices mean it can be difficult for resellers to decide which products are best suited to particular customers and application areas.
When it comes to wide area networks (Wans) and global wireless datacoms, the ubiquitous cellular phone system tends to dominate. Although originally designed as a method of providing voice communications, mobile phones are increasingly being used to carry data traffic, with wireless application protocol (Wap) technology having been the driving force.
But despite all the hype surrounding Wap, there are questions over its ability to provide effective data communications into the long term. However, there is little doubt that demand for wireless datacoms is increasing significantly as companies begin to realise the potential benefits of providing staff with mobile access to information.
According to Brian Jackson, director at Infinite UK, there are several benefits to adopting wireless technology for data communications. "Wireless technology allows sharing of corporate information, including email, stock and inventory information, or any information that is time-sensitive," he explained.
"Companies with a mobile workforce are prime candidates for adopting wireless technology because it allows efficient communication with the corporate infrastructure. In addition, many customers also buy into the technology so that they can run their own Wap portal. This allows them to control the consumer's experience in the form of advertising, links, and so on, and makes access more secure," he added.
Your flexible friend
Jane Dennis, sales and marketing director at 1-2-1 Euro Technology, believes it is the flexibility of wireless communications that makes it so compelling. "Wireless networks are much less restrictive than traditional networks because they enable you to get the information you want when and where you want it," she said.
"The convenience it offers is amazing. It makes tripping over cables everywhere and grappling with mobile phone connectors very old fashioned. Also, for a growing business it is more easily scalable than a traditional network, since new devices can connect to the network very easily, without the need for any drilling or cabling," she explained.
According to Yuri Pasea, managing director at FutureLink Europe, being able to dispense with traditional cabling can be a vital factor in certain situations. "One unique case was when one of our resellers installed a wireless network in a Grade II-listed building. Due to laws prohibiting the owners from digging up the floors and drilling holes through walls, a traditional Lan was out of the question," he said. "Instead, they opted for a wireless networking solution which provided them with the transmission range to carry out their usual business."
Similarly, the elimination of traditional cabling enables companies to implement new ways of working which simply cannot be achieved without wireless communications.
"Generally, those companies already using wireless recognise it as a value-add to their business model and a cost-effective solution that can genuinely link up different areas of their business in a fraction of the time associated with traditional network architecture," said Pasea.
"Companies with limited office space can now implement the 'hot desking' principle to allow restricted desk space to be shared effectively. Simply find a spare desk and with wireless datacoms, you don't have to be physically connected to the Lan. For companies with employees frequently visiting the office, this is a massive relief."
The number of applications that wireless datacoms can handle has also increased. Jeremy Sharp, UK country manager at Seagull, said: "Wireless technology is not restricted to one market or one vertical segment. The technology is blossoming throughout. Early adopters include the manufacturing, distribution, healthcare and financial sectors. Any mobile workforce presents the opportunity to incorporate wireless into their IT infrastructure."
Pasea agrees that resellers should not restrict themselves too much and believes that practically any type of business might benefit from introducing wireless technology. "After two false starts, the wireless market is really beginning to hot up. The technology is now being adopted properly and businesses are starting to see the advantages," he claimed.
"The best market to go for is business use and not the domestic market. Essentially we are going to see almost all businesses in the next two years accessing their data via their personal digital assistants [PDAs] or mobile phones. Wireless will allow an enhanced access service, particularly with the arrival of Bluetooth.
"Domestic use quite simply won't take off until people can use their wireless network to turn on the central heating or programme their video recorder via a PDA or mobile with an internet browser. After all, more people have mobiles than PCs. When that scenario is a reality, wireless use will rocket."
The price is right
Ronnie Lloyd, technology consultant at Cambridge Online Systems, suggests that the high cost of wireless communications is no longer a market inhibitor, and that as a result there are more opportunities to expand into different sectors.
"Historically, wireless solutions tended to be rather expensive and very few businesses could justify the costs. For example, only two years ago, a radio Lan adapter cost in the region of £450. Nowadays, they can be picked up for as little as £170. The price barrier has become eroded and wireless technology is now a viable option for many companies, particularly the SME [small to medium sized enterprise] market," he said.
However, although wireless communications provide many benefits in terms of mobility, flexibility and convenience, the technology also has possible drawbacks that need to be taken into account.
By their very nature, radio-based communication systems may be subject to interference and certain environments can cause problems. In addition, many people feel that the operating range of some products is a severe limitation to their effectiveness.
As a result, George Zervos, northern Europe managing director at SMC Networks, sounds a cautionary note. "There are environments where wireless is difficult to implement and costly due to the structures present, materials used in the structures or other radio interference. Wireless should never be viewed as the only solution. In many cases, users will be adding wireless segments to existing cabled networks," he explained.
Lloyd also highlighted some of the difficulties involved in implementing wireless systems in certain environments. "Environmental factors can effect the installation dramatically. Sometimes, thick solid walls in listed buildings are no problem, yet thin plasterboard walls can stop the signal dead. It just depends," he said.
Mobile workforces use a raft of different applications, ranging from field service and maintenance, sales force automation and financial database access. And many of these packages could be accessed simply and easily using mobile devices such as PDAs, Wap-enabled phones and handheld PCs, which makes them ripe for use with wireless datacoms technology.
Managed services project involving Dounreay nuclear site thought to be worth as much as £15m over five years
In a boon for the channel, shares in UK publicly listed resellers and MSPs are on the rise. Here we count down the five stocks that have performed the best so far this year
Amazon Web Services holds pole position in all territories, Synergy Research Group claims
Comms giant picks up Portsmouth-based Cisco and Apple partner