Computing without wires ought, by definition, to be all about unencumbered simplicity. But as anyone knows who has ever tried to sell or deploy even the most straightforward of corporate wireless solutions, there's nothing simple about it.
The channel is assured constantly that an imminent wireless boom will fast-track the industry out of recession. End-user businesses are being urged to believe that a secure and cost-effective wire-free future is just around the corner.
But the bald truth is that wireless still has a number of hurdles to overcome before it comes anywhere near living up to all this breathless hype.
Security is probably the biggest unresolved wireless headache. Reliability and interoperability too are anything but assured by today's solutions.
Add to that issues such as the difficulty of integrating a wireless environment with a legacy wired one, and the threats to network integrity posed by rogue elements within organisations trying their own little wireless experiments, and you've got not so much a solution to business needs as a fairly impressive list of disasters waiting to happen.
Standards mix 'n' match
But there is another side to wireless's image problem that has nothing to do with the shortcomings of the actual technology. It concerns, in a word, standards.
Wireless presents any interested party (yes, despite the above drawbacks these do exist) with a ragbag of standards and platforms that may or may not have anything to do with their needs.
Comprehending the distinctions between Bluetooth, 802.11 in 'a', 'b' or 'g' flavours, 3G, Wap, GPRS and others is hellishly complex for most enterprises, not to mention the reseller channel, whose unenviable task it is to extrapolate sellable solutions from the chaos.
"It's raining wireless at the moment," says Dave Curl, marketing manager at TDK Systems. "The channel is certainly faced with a lot of options."
Before they can make a meaningful recommendation about which standard is applicable to which business issue, resellers need to be sure of certain essentials.
How, if at all, do these standards overlap? What's their core market? Are any of them rivals? Does adoption of one mutually exclude another? Are there any with less of a shelf life than others? Is there another killer technology just around the corner which, at a sweep, will make them all obsolete?
The standards debate is often oversimplified as a shoot-out between two main wireless camps: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. But there is more blue sky between these 'competing' standards than we are sometimes given to believe, claims Dean Murphy, senior wireless consultant at reseller Satsuma Solutions.
"Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are different technologies aimed at solving different problems," he says. "Wi-Fi separates people from office sockets, while Bluetooth is an alternative means of communication between personal devices.
"They can co-exist. Some firms have already tried to get one to do what the other's good at, and found it's not the right tool for the job."
Mark Worsley, head of business development at Synstar Networking, believes that Windows XP support for Bluetooth has helped its take-up, but that ultimately it is suited to so-called personal area networks, connecting PCs, printers and PDAs.
"The limited distance and lower speeds precludes its use for replacing Lan connectivity," he says.
Guy Davies, IP architect at pan-European network integrator Telindus, broadly agrees. "Bluetooth isn't really a competitor to 802.11b because of its very short range, a maximum of 10 metres.
"Its main focus is connecting multiple devices in the possession of an individual. It has little potential with regard to networking beyond that."
This faint praise for Bluetooth is pretty mild compared to the brickbats it receives from the hardcore Wi-Fi lobby, for which Wi-Fi is the only serious wireless contender at enterprise level, and Bluetooth some sort of has-been fad enjoyed only by gadget freaks.
But Bluetooth does have its apologists. "Critics point out that it's been two-and-a-half years since version 1.1 of the Bluetooth standard, and that we won't get 1.2 until next year," says Curl.
"This doesn't mean the technology is dead, simply that the core spec is good, stable and hasn't needed to adapt. In consequence, the Bluetooth industry has been able to focus on issues like interoperability and user interfaces. This has made it a highly successful user experience."
This wouldn't be the wireless industry if Curl wasn't ready with an anti-Wi-Fi sideswipe. "My perception of 802.11 is that it typifies the PC industry's love of bits and bytes. There's no one body driving it. And Bluetooth does so much more than simply replace cables," he adds.
There are Bluetooth advocates who do not see Wi-Fi as a threat so much as a distantly related complement. These include John Hagerty, partner programme manager at SMC Networks.
"I think it's safe to say Bluetooth has arrived. It has now permeated into most electronic devices, ridding us of wires for good. Bluetooth is well placed and delivers benefits. But for serious connectivity, 802.11 products, rightly, shoulder the majority of responsibility," he says.
Hagerty thinks there is no doubt that 802.11b-based products have successfully captured the public's imagination.
"The technology is simple to install, very capable and extremely cost-effective," he says. But the downside of this cost-effectiveness, he adds, is that margins are being hacked lower and lower for 802.11g and 802.11b products.
If wireless in general has problems with standards that appear to converge and compete at the same time, then Wi-Fi is a conflict within a conflict.
Rather like the Spanish Civil War, where each side was fighting not only the other but also against factions within itself, Wi-Fi is a compendium of internal contradictions.
As Adrian Horne, IBM's ThinkVantage marketing specialist, expresses it: "There's plenty of confusion about the difference between [802.11] 'a', 'b' and 'g'. Many see 'a' as the corporate standard, and 'g' as intended to push wireless further into the consumer space. But lots of corporates are now looking at 'g'. It's confusing for users and for resellers."
There are certainly important technical differences between the three that go some way to explaining what each is for, says Davies.
"Both 'b' and 'g' use 2.4GHz, which is constrained to three channels. With 'b', that gives a total of 33Mbps of raw transmission, not taking into account overheads associated with carrying actual data.
"With 'g', you've got a total of 162Mbps. The problem is that if anyone with a 'b' device enters a 'g' zone, the 'g' kit has to slow down to avoid colliding with the 'b' kit.
"The other alternative is 802.11a, also known as 802.11h in Europe. This has 21 non-overlapping channels in Europe, each providing 54Mbps, and because it operates in the 5GHz band, it doesn't interfere with 'a' or 'g' at all."
So does 'g', the most recent of the three, in any way emerge as definitive? Jolanda Medendorp, senior marcoms manager Europe with InFocus Corporation, thinks so.
"Offering backwards compatibility to current 'b', 802.11g provides a natural migration path for today's wireless professionals. Ratified as a standard in July 2003, 802.11g combines the best of both 802.11b and 802.11a," she says.
Medendorp adds that 'g' offers 802.11b's coverage and carrier frequency, but like 802.11a uses Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing to increase the amount of data transmitted in a given time slice.
This characteristic translates nicely, she says, for wireless display applications into support for streaming video at increased screen resolutions.
The hurly burly of competing technologies is not a debate that many outside the wireless community are getting too exercised about, certain voices of reason are at pains to remind us.
Arguing about the relative merits of the various standards can be a distraction from more important issues, says Murphy. "We are agnostic about individual technologies and standards. As far as we're concerned, it's all about solutions to customer needs.
"We leave the technology for meeting two or three. It's amazing how often the technology comes first when people discuss wireless."
Bal Phull, marketing communications manager at D-Link, agrees that it is margin that counts more than 'feeds and speeds'.
"The wireless solution that overcomes a problem for a customer is where the real margin is; consulting and providing the solution is the key, and understanding aspects like security and conducting a good wireless survey will also add to the reseller's margin opportunity," he says.
On the subject of margin, Phull adds: "802.11g is the higher-speed offering, therefore more suitable for the commercial business environment, being the progression from the 802.11b standard. 802.11g is more attractive and this range gives more opportunity to make money."
The standards 'debate', as well as drawing attention away from issues like profit and margin, also ignores that fact that in essence the wireless market is still best viewed as a mass of vertical markets rather than a horizontal solution with wide acceptance.
Typical of wireless resellers with a strong vertical focus is Extech Data Systems, which specialises in mobile printer solutions. General manager Tony Revis says it is worth remembering that there is nothing particular new about the current "who's got the best standard" debate.
"We've been going since 1995, and I'd say about 80 per cent of our installed base uses infrared solutions. Getting rid of cabling is a priority in our market. There is a general move to Bluetooth, as people realise that it does work. There's a cost penalty in moving, but it's one that many are prepared to pay," he says.
If the wireless market is going to evolve beyond the level of a debate about standards, then it must be the vendors that show the way. At times it seems that there is a shortage of vendors proactively steering their channel towards a better understanding of wireless as a solution.
Angelo Lamme, wireless segment manager at 3Com, claims his company is one such. "We've set up a wireless Preferred Partner Programme, with a training scheme to help resellers know when to sell 'a', 'b' or 'g'. We draw a big picture for them.
"This will help when we all move forward to 802.16 and 802.20 in three of four years time. You need to be on top of what's happening now," Lamme says.
Yes, you read it right. Help is at hand, but there are more standards on the way. Will the nightmare never end?
3G or not 3G
Never mind Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for a second. There's a whole other wireless debate that's coming at the data networking industry from the world of mobile communications. Wap may be old hat, but now there's 3G, GPRS and others.
"3G is complementary to Wi-Fi and has a greater range, but Wi-Fi can offer higher throughput," says Anthony Fulgoni, western European sales manager at Proxim. "Depending on your circumstances you may use one or the other."
But not any time soon, according to Philip Kwan, director of enterprise applications at Foundry Networks. "The speed of 3G is still low when compared with 802.11g and 802.11a and 802.11a Turbo," he says.
"Until 3G's roll-out is completed and the speeds improved, Wap will still have an important role to play. For most enterprises, Wap will be the technology of choice because it is proven."
Daniel Mothersdale, northern European marketing director at Enterasys Networks, agrees that IS managers can sleep easy for the moment while 3G gathers momentum as an alternative. But he is not so hot on Wap.
"3G has a long way to go before it can compete. Anyone who has seen the quality of 3G video at present is not too impressed. Wap, as far as I can tell, has always been nothing more than a gimmick; it's too slow and cannot provide decent content.
WI guess somebody somewhere must be using it, but as hotspots become more widespread I can see more people switching to them over Wap," he says.
Lynda Colman, wireless and e-security business development director at Avaya UK, says: "In the UK 3G is not available for any business applications because the existing operator is running a closed network which prevents access to the 'general internet' and so prevents VPNs being used to gain secure access back to the corporate HQ servers and applications.
"GPRS and Wi-Fi hotspots are currently the only technologies that offer business benefits within this space."
Also in this series:
How to Sell: Wireless - Part 1 - Joining the wireless set
TDK Systems (020) 8938 1000
Telindus (01256) 709 200
D-Link (020) 8731 5555
Avaya (0800) 698 3619
Proxim (01494) 563 737
InFocus (00) 31 20 57 92165
SMC (0800) 917 9523
IBM (01475) 892 000
Satsuma Solutions (0870) 4100 728
Synstar Networking (01344) 662 700
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