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Nothing Simple About Wireless Connectivity Solutions
by Mark Sedenquist

Ed Bramlett is a fleet manager at a Southern California Cadillac dealership. A recent e-mail message he sent is a good example of the complexity of locating and implementing wireless solutions:

    My question is based around the fact that a couple of times a week I find myself wireless and on the road while time-sensitive requests from potential customers are coming in. Their e-mail requests are being copied to me on my digital Ericsson cell phone (Pac-Bell), which, while alerting me to their requests, does not provide an adequate way of responding by e-mail or accessing my office database for information.

    My needs are simple: I need to be able to read a complete incoming e-mail, in pretty near a full-screen format. I need to minimize or title that e-mail and access my computer at the office. I need to call up a template, access my customer database and insert information by paste-and-copy from my office computer to create a meaningful response. From time to time I may need to work and attach Excel spreadsheets and access secure online services from GM that are HTML or Java based.

    What should a bloke like me get if I wanted to make all this happen in the next 30 days or so? My budget is maybe $3,000 to $5,000.

Well, Ed, there is perfectly simple solution-- Go buy a Dashboarder-equipped vehicle. Oh, I forgot-- one has yet to be built.

GM, Ford and other manufacturers have been making noises about their collective intentions to provide devices that would support such applications for some time now. One of the difficulties in finding a solution to this range of business tasks is the fall-out from current marketing campaigns from some of the major telecommunication companies. Some of these print and TV ads lend support to the notion that you could go to your nearest Radio Shack or Verizon superstore and purchase a device in a box that will magically work as soon as you turn it on.

The irritating aspect is that if you were at an "Enterprise level of business" (say 100+ employees and a million or two dollars in annual receivables), there are companies that can implement and manage solutions to meet some, if not all, of your needs. In essence, the solution provided by these firms is to collect and organize the software and data that you want in the field and place it onto specialized servers which then slice, dice, and compress your e-mail/data/communiqués into forms of data that can be easily read and comprehended by wireless devices. The companies who perform this alchemy are known as "Application Service Providers, or ASPs. (That means, by the way, that Wireless ASP's are WASPs!)

There are some interesting case studies that may be helpful to consider. I suggest taking a couple of minutes to look Afaria, or MobileQ or the offerings of 2Roam as examples of the types of services that are available in the corporate marketplace. Marbles, Inc. uses server-based software that can deliver useful data at the very slow connection speeds often encountered by cellular networks. I have used their CDPD-based "SkyFire" product, to view Web pages on a Palm Pilot device, and the documents loaded faster than I expected.

This isn't to suggest that there are no solutions out there for individuals and other mere mortals like us. What basically happens is that one substitutes the use of a powerful dedicated server with a desktop PC by creating a virtual portal in which similar data can be sliced and diced and served up to the device you choose. This is mostly done through a variety of filtering tools that allow the user to determine the priority for which messages or types of content are delivered when.

I think your best bet to meet your stated goals would be to employ a two-phase strategy. One element can certainly be wireless and the second should remain plugged into the wired Internet. Although I like the "look" of the pocket PCs like the Compaq iPaq I think your best wireless option is to use the RIM Blackberry device and some of the service options provided by companies like Paradigm4. Paradigm4 has a utility that can convert e-mail attachments to more-or-less readable format for the Blackberry. It also can support, (or will in the near future), the ability to run Windows applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Adobe's PDF format.

Your stated goal of wanting to be able to access your corporate database and then manipulating that data is possible in a wireless mode, but not very practical from a hand-held device. There are a number of wireless modems that can be attached to laptop computers, which have the requisite processing capability to manipulate the data in the forms you are interested in, but the wireless networks are still insufficient to handle the transfer of this data at an appropriate bandwidth and speed. Therefore, the phase II solution would be to carry a laptop and access the public-access portals (See Road Wirer #28) that already exist to the wired Internet. I could be wrong, since I really don't know enough about your business, but it seems possible that over half of your wireless communication needs could be met with the RIM device and the most of the rest of those requirements could be met by the existing software on your laptop as long as you use a wired connection.

Dashboarders of every persuasion and focus are seeking similar solutions to meet their communication needs. No easy answers for a 100% solution, but there is certainly a 45-70% solution available to you at your stated budget. I hope you will let us know what options you decide to employ.

Mark Sedenquist
Las Vegas, Nevada
October 30, 2000