802.11's no panacea

The redoubtable Carl Reiner asked Mel Brooks' 2000-Year-Old-Man what the greatest invention of all time was. 'Saran Wrap', Brooks replied. 'It's clear, you can wrap a sandwich in it and see if it's still good ...'

ManagementSpeak: I will look into it.

Translation: Let's change the subject.

-- IS Survivalist Greg Bonney looked into the meaning of this week's useful aphorism.

The redoubtable Carl Reiner asked Mel Brooks' 2000 Year-Old Man what the greatest invention of all time was. "Saran Wrap", Brooks replied. "It's clear, you can wrap a sandwich in it and see if it's still good ..."

When, in protest, Reiner asked about space travel and modern medicine, Brooks answered, "Oh, those are nice, too."

That pretty much describes my level of excitement for 802.11, the impending standard for wireless LANs that some commentators write about so enthusiastically. It isn't that 802.11 is a bad thing. I just don't see this as being worth a technology chief's time and energy.

LANs are infrastructure. Infrastructure is important, but it isn't strategic from a business perspective unless it enables a fundamentally new way of working. For example, 802.11 would be business-strategic if a company used it to organise around ad hoc teams instead of a fixed organisational chart. Just imagine every employee with a golf cart instead of a cubicle, equipped with an 802.11-capable laptop and a wireless, IP-telephony-enabled telephone. Instead of remodelling every time the company reorganises, employees could park next to today's manager and co-workers.

Infrastructure also isn't strategic from an internal IT perspective, unless, that is, it lets you shift a significant share of the budget from maintenance to creating new business value. But even if 802.11 was fast and sturdy enough to eliminate LAN wiring altogether, it still wouldn't have a big enough impact to qualify.

And it isn't. 802.11b, the more practical of the two (it costs less and has a 100m range) runs at 11Mbit/s 802.11a runs faster -- 54Mbit/s is possible under ideal conditions -- but is limited to a 20m range.

As the payload we deliver to the desktop continues to become bulkier, the 100Mbit/s, switched, dedicated, noise-resistant bandwidth that you now get at dirt-cheap pricing in the wired world still looks a lot more attractive than wireless, especially because the placement of wireless transceivers is as much black art as it is engineering.

Don't get me wrong. 802.11 has its place -- in niche situations, such as trade shows where fast setup and take-down are the dominant requirements for a network, and home networking, where pulling cable means punching holes through walls and ceilings. And one of these years, a successor to 802.11 just might perform well enough to become the dominant network topology in most companies.

Even if it does, it will still be infrastructure. Most technology chiefs should have bigger fish -- stored, of course, in Saran Wrap -- to fry.

Wire your opinion to Lewis. Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, a consultancy specialising in IT effectiveness and strategic alignment.

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