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Working in a wireless world

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":

  • the development of new standards and technologies for wireless intercommunication between electronic devices

  • the emergence of broadband wireless telecommunication standards and services

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 our lives.

Wireless networks

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 reality.

Bluetooth

"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 them

  • linking computing devices to nearby peripherals

  • linking notebook computers to mobile phones anywhere, anytime, to connect to the Internet or other systems.

Increased efficiency can be brought to work processes using wireless connection. Take the following scenario: 

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 instantly processed.

Wi-Fi

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 data transfer. 

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 broadband telecommunciations

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 applications.

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 other, anywhere.

Wireless working - what's different?

Fully wireless working will have an impact in two key areas:

  • Improving the effectiveness of location independent working - perhaps even making it truly location independent

  • Changing the nature of office environments

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.

Meeting with 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 with you.

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 adaptable.

So far we've been pretty upbeat about the possibilities - are we in danger of being seduced by the hype?

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 products. 

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.

 

Cutting the cord

This article looks at the range of new wireless technologies coming into play, and their potential for enabling new ways of working.

For further information on the technologies mentioned, see the Flexibility Glossary.

Links for further information:

Bluetooth: www.bluetooth.com

Wi-Fi:
www.wirelessethernet.com

Infra Red:
www.irda.org 

GPRS:
www.gsmworld.com 

UMTS:
www.umts-forum.org

 

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