8 Mobile & Wireless Predictions

For this first Mobile & Wireless UPDATE of the new year, I want to review the major developments of 2002, as well as speculate about what we might see in 2003.

Despite high hopes, 2002 was hardly a breakout year for mobile and wireless technologies. With the economy in recession and the United States still in shock from the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, the entire technology sector started the year in bad shape. Nevertheless, several interesting developments occurred. Notable among these developments were Microsoft's launch of Pocket PC 2002 devices and Palm's launch of Palm OS 5 and its new Tungsten and Zire brands. We also saw the pace of wireless adoption pick up—especially regarding 802.11b, which has become the standard wireless-network protocol for virtually every application.

The year ended with a few impressive developments, notably Microsoft's launch of the Tablet PC form factor at COMDEX Fall 2002. In December, AT&T, IBM, and Intel announced a joint venture called Cometa Networks, which will offer public "hot spot" 802.11 wireless-network access, beginning with 50 major metropolitan areas in 2003.

This year, I predict that we'll witness eight major developments in the mobile and wireless arena:

1. PDA/smart phones will become common.
By the end of 2002, all the major players (e.g., Microsoft, Palm, Handspring, Nokia, Research In Motion—RIM) had some kind of device in production that offered a combination of PDA and cell-phone features. The high price and complexity of the initial devices limited them to early adopters, but I expect one or more of the vendors to break out with a reasonably priced device in 2003. The lack of a nationwide standard for mobile digital connectivity will continue to plague this field. Nevertheless, I expect these devices to become mainstream: IT departments will begin seeing them in significant numbers and will need to figure out how to support them.

2. Tablet PCs will experience a slow start.
Tablet PCs are too expensive ($1400 to $2500, depending on the model) to sell in large quantities. However, don't underestimate the "coolness factor" of these devices. They'll develop a cult status among business travelers, and they'll draw crowds in airports. Microsoft has also made a potentially smart move by targeting graduate students as a key market. If Tablet PCs become standard at one or two of the top MBA programs, they'll soon be in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies! Prices will come down, and these devices will become mainstream—but that will take longer than a year.

3. Third generation (3G) networks will experience a slow rollout.
Despite continued hype, true high-speed mobile service will be an extremely tough sell because of limited coverage and the high cost of service plans. True, 3G networks might take off in some markets. For example, Wall Street traders in Manhattan will pay a premium to obtain market data ahead of their competitors. However, don't expect 3G networks to be a mainstream phenomenon until a nationwide standard emerges and prices comes down. Even in Europe, 3G networks will continue to roll out slowly, as carriers continue to overprice the service in an attempt to defray their enormous expenditure on spectrum licenses.

4. We'll see more 802.11.
The basic 11Mbps 802.11b protocol is a de facto standard now, and the move to higher-speed variants is only a matter of time. You'll see increasing "hot spot" access in hotels, airports, and coffee shops, and you'll see increasing demand for wireless networks in companies. "I can use my new wireless gizmo at the airport; why doesn't it work here?"

5. We'll see more 802.11 problems.
If you haven't been paying attention to wireless security, you'd better get up to speed. As wireless networks become more common, expect to see more "war drivers" hacking in from parking lots. The notorious lack of security on most wireless LANs (WLANs) is an open invitation to intruders. Although most wireless hacking to date has been benign, a wireless attack such as last year's Code Red worm is somewhere on the horizon. Vendor-specific, incompatible implementations of optional 802.11 features complicate this situation. (Try using a wireless NIC that supports 40-bit Wireless Application Protocol—WAP—with an Access Point—AP—that supports 64-bit.) Such incompatibilities might slow the move to higher-speed wireless networks, at least until a standard emerges—for example, 802.11a/b "dual-band" or 802.11g.

6. Palm and Microsoft will duke it out.
This prediction has been standing for years. (Remember when "Time Magazine" put a Pocket PC and a PalmPilot on its cover?) However, I think we'll see a full-scale war for PDA users this year. Palm OS 5 offers a feature set that can truly compete with that of the Pocket PC, and Dell's introduction of a full-featured Pocket PC for less than $300 starts to level the playing field on price. Who will win? Users. They'll get Pocket PC features with Palm's ease of use, at Palm-sized prices. Who will lose? IT departments. They'll have to figure out how to support mixed networks of Palm OS and Pocket PC devices, which will be coming through the front door in droves.

7. Wireless Voice over IP (VoIP) will emerge.
I'm going out on a limb with this one. The combination of more widespread 802.11 wireless networks and VoIP telephony makes a lot of sense. The usual complaint about VoIP on wired networks is that its audio quality can't compete with that of conventional telephones. However, audio quality can certainly compete with that of cell phones. Expect companies that invest in wireless networks to start trying VoIP as a way to recoup some of the cost. Individual users will try VoIP at public "hot spots" as well. This development could lead to bandwidth problems for IT organizations that don't adequately monitor the use of their networks. And wireless VoIP might spawn a new kind of intruder: wireless "phone phreaks."

8. Mobile and wireless management software will explode.
One of the hottest growth areas for IT software in 2003 will be mobile and wireless management software. Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003 includes features aimed at supporting mobile users. And I'm seeing more and more announcements about competing products that offer similar features but don't require a homogeneous base of users running only the latest Microsoft products. As PDAs, smart phones, and Tablet PCs become more common, the market for software to manage them will only grow. A warning: Some of the software won't be worth the cost of the packaging.

I'd like to add two more predictions and make it an even 10, but I've stuck my neck out far enough already. Happy New Year, and let me know what you think of my predictions. Am I right or am I wrong? Either way, we'll have a great time finding out in 2003!

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