It seems just like yesterday
that we were running a project on "The Business Benefits of Wired
Working". And weren't we urging commuters to "work down the
wire, rather than down the road"? Even then, a couple of years back,
it was a kind of shorthand, of course. Various shades of wireless working
have been around for years.
Now we shall have to abandon
the "wired" metaphor altogether. The concept is starting to look
decidedly dated, as we find ourselves at the beginning of a wireless
revolution. Over the next 2-3 years a brace of new technologies and standards are set to liberate
us from our dependence on wires and cables. The cord is about to be well
and truly cut.
Basically there are two areas
of innovation that underpin this "revolution":
Together these developments
create a framework for adding new dimensions to location independent
working. And they will make for many other changes in the way we organise
Look around any home or office
and you will find yards of cabling: tangles of spaghetti behind the
TV/video/set-top box, or connecting the
PC/monitor/keyboard/mouse/modem/joystick/camera printer/scanner... What if
you could do away with it all, and still have the different devices in the
system work together?
Well, now we can. In fact,
some of the technologies for doing so have been with us for some time. We
are all familiar with infra-red (IR), at least with the TV remote control.
The InfraRed Data Association (IRDA) aims to promote infrared standards to
connect appliances: many laptops and mobile phones already have an
infrared connection capability. Infrared however depends on line-of-sight
for connection, which makes it less suitable for networks as opposed to
simple point-to point connection.
Perhaps less well-known are HomeRF which enables cordless radio connection
between devices in the home, and the IEEE 802.11 wireless networking
standard. The new generation of Apple computers and some PCs have for a
while been shipped with 802.11 wireless networking capability, though few people
seem to take advantage of this.
However, the majority of
industry heavyweights seem to be lining up behind the two emerging
standards of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Over the next couple of years Bluetooth
or Wi-Fi capability (sometimes both) is expected be built into thousands
of electronic devices, bringing the wireless/cordless dream closer to
"Bluetooth" is the
somewhat eccentric branding of a specification for low-cost short-range
radio links between electronic devices - laptops, PCs, mobile phones,
digital cameras, computer peripherals etc. Expectations are that some 900
million devices could be Bluetooth-enabled by 2005.
The technology, first
developed by Ericsson, is championed by a consortium also including
IBM, Intel, Nokia, Toshiba, Lucent, Microsoft, Motorola and 3Com, and is supported by some 1800 other companies. The name is a reference to the
Viking king Harald Bluetooth, who united Denmark and Norway in the 10th
century. "Uniting" seems to be the salient reference: around
1000 years before Marconi it was no doubt wireless too.
Bluetooth will enable the
creating of a Personal Area Network ("PAN", like WAN and LAN) whenever
Bluetooth devices come within range of each other. The advantages of this
are fairly self-evident, e.g.
connecting home entertainment
and/or communication devices without having to plug in wires everywhere
exchanging information between
portable devices without having to make any physical connection between
linking computing devices to
linking notebook computers to
mobile phones anywhere, anytime, to connect to the Internet or other
Increased efficiency can be
brought to work processes using wireless connection. Take the following
An insurance assessor might
visit 10 claimants in one day, covering 1000 miles. At the end of the day,
he needs to type up reports and email them to the claims dept. He also has
to wait for camera film containing images he has taken on site to be
developed. If these images need to be in a computerised format, they have
to be scanned, all of which takes time and effort.
However, by changing the way
in which devices connect, the same assessor can cover the same distance,
but at the end of the day, everything will already be at the office. He
could use a Bluetooth equipped digital camera to take the pictures. These could
then be immediately transferred to a Bluetooth equipped laptop. He could
then type up and electronically sign his report whilst still at the
client's premises. He then attaches the pictures to the report ready for
emailing to the office. Back in the car, a Bluetooth-enabled GPRS phone
finds the email and transmits it to the office in a format that can be
Wi-Fi (for wireless fidelity)
is the name given by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance to the
IEEE 802.11b standard for wireless networking. 802.11b is an advance on
the 802.11 standard mentioned above, allowing greater range, and faster
There is some overlap with
Bluetooth, in that both provide radio connection between electronic
devices. But where Bluetooth is designed to be ideal for the Personal Area
Network, and ad hoc networking of devices, Wi-Fi's strength is in enabling
a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN).
There are two main areas where
this will have a significant impact:
Home networking of devices,
e.g. linking the home office computer and the kids' computers to shared
devices such as printer, scanner, cable modem etc - or linking intelligent
household devices as homes become more automated
Office networking of devices -
which probably already exists, but Wi-Fi will not only enable spaghetti elimination
but also make the office LAN more flexible and accessible.
The greater range of Wi-Fi may
makes it more appropriate for regular use in office environments, for
example by enabling a laptop to be taken between rooms while maintaining
its link to office systems.
In the home environment Wi-Fi
faces a serious challenge from HomeRF which is being promoted as the
standard for consumer electronic devices. But proponents of Wi-Fi see in
the growth of the SOHO (small office/home office) market and the increase
in home working a factor in its favour: people are likely to want the same
systems at home that they use at work.
What is important for flexible
working is the development of a seamless wireless environment where people
can just set up and work, wherever they are, having access to all the information
and systems they need.
New types of wireless
The combination of wireless
networking with new higher bandwidth phone services will add a new
dimension to "anywhere, anytime" working.
Recently telecoms companies
across Europe have been investing $billions in licences for "Third
Generation" (3G) telecommunications. Great hopes are held out for the
Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). This will allow
broadband services to mobile phones and other handheld devices, enabling
fast mobile access to the Internet, video, gaming and other multimedia
Coming on stream ahead of
that, however, is the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), characterised
as a "generation 2.5" telecoms technology. GPRS is
a non-voice service that allows data to be transferred over the current
GSM mobile phone network at reasonable speeds. It is seen by many as a halfway house
or stepping stone towards
Third Generation mobile communications, but some analysts think it may be more
enduring due to the costs of rolling out 3G services.
Either way, broadband
"always available" data connectivity is pretty much upon us.
Using Bluetooth or one of the other technologies plus the new mobile
telephony creates the potential for any compatible device to link to any
Wireless working -
Fully wireless working will
have an impact in two key areas:
In practice, flexible location
working is often compromised by practical limitations. You can access
office systems from home, but not on the road. You can connect you laptop
to a touchdown point at the main office to transfer information, but at
home or at a branch office this is not straightforward. This can change.
At the office, or in the home office, connection is established through
proximity. On the road, a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone links your
notebook computer to home or office systems.
clients or partners can become more effective. No more "I'll email
that when I get back to the office" - the office in effect travels
Office environments too can
change. Office design is greatly constrained not just by the bulk of the
average PC, but by its inflexible positioning once it's all hooked up.
Being able to clear the decks more easily for office parties is only one
of the benefits of the wireless office. The point is that offices can be
more easily tailored for specific purposes, becoming more flexible and
So far we've been pretty
upbeat about the possibilities - are we in danger of being seduced by the
There are limitations and
uncertainties about the technologies. There are big concerns about data
security in a wireless world, scepticism about the alleged range of some
of the technologies, some evidence of interference and impaired
performance when different technologies are brought into proximity with
each other. There are also doubts about consumer enthusiasm for wireless
networking - it's a largely untested market.
The different technologies are
also, at least to some extent, in competition with each other. It is
unlikely that Bluetooth, WI-Fi, HomeRF and IR all have a rosy future. Nor
is it certain that the best technology will predominate. We have seen in
the world of video recording and computer operating systems that
better/more aggressive marketing can lead to the triumph of inferior
Even so, new directions and new technologies become established.
The realistic response is make the most of the situation as it emerges.
Managers planning to introduce flexible working would do well to keep
abreast of the new wireless technologies as they are rolled out.