Application Evolution in the 802.11 Space: Material Impediment or Non-Issue?

By Mark Walser

October 16, 2001

In this piece we explore the real and perceived obstacles to the proliferation of IEEE 802.11 wireless local area networks. Take a look at some of the subtle and not so subtle hindrances and find out where efforts need to be focused to overcome them.

With the current uncertainty surrounding other means of wireless connectivity, wireless LAN technologies like 802.11 have generated a lot of excitement with the promise of reliable, easy wireless connections in a local environment, either public, corporate, or private. Over the past 6 months as investment and development has poured into the 802.11 space, we have witnessed the rise and the fall of a number of companies like the now-defunct wireless data provider Metricom, Inc..

The latest wireless LAN player to face significant difficulties was MobileStar, which temporarily closed its doors during the week of October 7, 2001. If MobileStar does follow in the unfortunate footsteps of other bankrupt entities, new concern will be expressed as to how exactly one goes about monetizing 802.11 technology, particularly in a public environment or as it relates to mobile commerce initiatives. Starbucks, airports, and other public places were MobileStar's forte, and the company ended up struggling because it needed more sites and more customers to support the installed infrastructure. Unfortunately, a great many potential customers did not understand what 802.11 was, or how it could help them.

Fundamentally, people are beginning to ask about the types of applications that will set 802.11 apart and make it a truly widespread hit with customers. This piece seeks to explore the question about useful applications and what will ultimately make 802.11 highly relevant to the end-user.

Ask most average people on the street, and they will tell you that they have never heard of 802.11. Wireless Ethernet is a technology that is almost completely unfamiliar to the general public. It thrives in the high-end coffee shops of Silicon Valley and Manhattan, or in the corporate environment, or in the homes of a select few who are knowledgeable about the technology. Palm devices, PocketPCs, and laptops are all capable of connecting to 802.11 through built in hardware or add-ons. Yet to most people, Wireless Ethernet appears to be nothing more than another potentially over-hyped wireless extension of their already existing Internet capability. Wireless Ethernet provides convenience, both when going to a destination or working remotely, but how does the general public make sense of it and begin using it? Especially in light of the fact that the promises of the mobile Internet vis a vis cell phones have not materialized?

Setting Expectations
The first step in the process of endearing 802.11 technology into the hearts and minds of people everywhere is to market it appropriately. Unlike wireless data, which was improperly hyped as being the "Internet on your phone..", 802.11 caught a lot of marketers off guard. It came in under the radar in sort of a grass roots way, and people simply started using it. It is important to note that most PC manufacturers currently offer 802.11 connectivity as an option to their desktops, and we're beginning to see it in more and more retail stores. 802.11 must be marketed with a very simple message; "fast, easy, wireless access with no set-up headaches" Consumers at large should know that the basic technology let's them browse the Internet wirelessly. Once the initial exposure is complete, the customer will naturally wonder about useful applications.

Applications & Availability are key
Applications are designed to perform a specific function directly for the user. Therefore, the likelihood is that applications will initially be no more than extensions of existing Internet applications. Primarily, e-mail, Instant Messaging, and Web browsing will likely be the key drivers of initial usage by mobile business users.

Former Mobilestar COO Larry Cain agrees, and said that usage will be very casual and personal initially. As networks and public access locations ("hot spots") become more ubiquitous, MMS or Multimedia Messaging Services can be deployed to provide video/audio over IM on a desktop or mobile device, taking advantage of 802.11's higher wireless speeds and the ability to use phones and PCs. Cain said that as the number of WLANs grow, Metcalf's Law should come into play: Additional nodes increase the value of the network exponentially, and commerce related initiatives should naturally follow.

Historically, it appears to be true that the average person is not able to imagine all of the possibilities of a given new technology. Take, for example, the term 'high-speed' as it relates to 802.11b and broadband. People tend to assume that high-speed means 56 Kbps whereas the technically astute know that speeds in excess of 100 Mbps are possible. This perception chasm creates a lack of awareness for what is possible and stifles the demand for new applications that can run and benefit from truly higher data transfer rates. For example, if a person is not aware of how fast and convenient an 802.11b connection is, they will tend to shy away from sending a large file like a Power Point Presentation. Mobile business users tend to be very conscious of their time and do not wish to waste it waiting to send or download a large file. One of the true values of WLANs is that mobile business people will no longer be subjected to such slow speeds. They can enjoy relatively similar data transfer speeds compared to their office counterparts while at a hotel, an airport, a convention facility, a Starbucks, even their home - wirelessly.

Mobile business users will thus be able to enjoy the full benefits promised by such applications as SFA, SCM, and ERP. Currently, many of these applications are too cumbersome to provide value for the remote user. Soon, as the installation rate of "hot spots" begins to accelerate towards critical mass, full-frame teleconferencing and streaming media, Video-on-Demand and a host of location-based services will emerge. At that point, the monetizing of wireless LANs and their future development will occur because users will be able to access the technology quickly and easily, and because the number of locations where WLANs can be found will make the technology convenient for the user.

With the proliferation of 802.11 technology and its potential becoming more and more widespread, manufacturers and network operators should aim for the convergence of the technology with other growing mobile Network infrastructures. It would seem advisable for them to deploy new devices and LAN cards that can leverage faster networks (2.5G & 3G) and combine the functionality with 802.11. For example, a device that one carries could sense the "fastest/cheapest" available network and automatically connect very quickly so that one can move in and out of places without ever interrupting a particular wireless session . This raises another important point regarding the potential success of mobile commerce. Smaller players do not own most of the wireless customers, network operators do. So in order for 802.11 to succeed with consumers, it must ultimately come from the carriers, who have the market share and the money to promote this technology and deploy it.

Frequently, the question raised by industry professionals is, "What is the killer app that will make this initiative successful?" Many like Mr. Cain would tell you that the applications to make it successful already exist. The question may well be more pragmatic: Can mobile business users find value in running their current suite of apps faster and more conveniently?

Special thanks to Larry Cain, former COO of MobileStar, for his perspective on this article.

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