Wireless still has a few hurdles to jump

If memory serves, 1987 was known as the Year of the LAN. That was the year that local area network technology was supposed to have become mainstream after mass adoption of PCs.

If memory serves, 1987 was known as the Year of the LAN. That was the year that local area network technology was supposed to have become mainstream after mass adoption of PCs.

Of course what really happened was that each of the following four years was also known as the Year of the LAN. Fast-forward to 2001 and we find ourselves in a similar situation. But instead of LAN technology, we are now in the midst of the Year of Wireless Networking. Naturally, this is only the first year of wireless technology, and based on the current state of affairs we can expect at least four more consecutive years.

What leads us into our current state of wireless frenzy is the rapid adoption of 802.11 wireless LANs and the proliferation in the US of wireless devices such as pagers from Research In Motion. Both of these networking technologies are a boon to end users, but they are only a beginning. In fact, a number of hurdles must be overcome before wireless technologies really go mainstream.

1. The first hurdle is to understand that the majority of wide area wireless networks are built on top of technology originally designed for voice rather than data traffic. In the not-too-distant future, many of these networks will be made obsolete by wireless networks that were designed from the ground up to efficiently carry IP traffic -- rather than voice traffic -- at lower costs.

2. There are too many spectrum options for end-users to deal with. Until we can seamlessly move from a wireless wide area network to a local area network (and vice versa) without having to reboot our systems, an element of inconvenience -- brought on by having to swap out PC cards -- will always exist.

3. At the same time, the pace of innovation is troubling. By the time IT people are done deploying 802.11 wireless LANs, new spectrum options will be made available to create wireless metropolitan area networks, thereby making many wireless LANs redundant.

4. Application developers still consider wireless to be a niche application. This means that they think of wireless applications as an afterthought, rather than building wireless support directly into the application.

5. The road to building 3G (third-generation) networks is fraught with financial peril because the costs of building these networks will exceed the prices that carriers can realistically charge for these services given the pricing of existing services.

6. Confusion over protocols is freezing application developer efforts while they wait to see which standards will actually have traction in the market. WAP (wireless application protocol) v iMode v HTML discussions are further exacerbated by spectrum overlap battles between 802.11 and Bluetooth specifications.

7. Security is a major unresolved issue. There is no such thing as a secure wireless network, and this shortcoming will give many companies pause before adopting wireless technology more broadly.

8. Application integration at the enterprise level remains a problem. A number of middleware solutions are available, but they all require lots of hands-on IT support to make sure that applications remain compatible as each upgrade and new device is added to the network.

9. Privacy is about to become a major problem with the adoption of location-based services that can track where an individual user is at any given moment. It won't be too long before some entity abuses this capability to invade someone's privacy.

10. There's no one-stop shopping solution for the enterprise, so if you want to build out a wireless network on a nationwide level, you need to be your own solutions integrator. Do not despair -- the wireless glass is truly half full rather than half empty. But in the short term, we need to be careful not to get too carried away. After all, progress will surely come, it just won't happen overnight or even within a single year.

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