IT managers are facing an increasingly complex array of wireless technology choices, with new offerings such as WiMax-certified devices and notebook PCs that have built-in support for third-generation networks adding to the options that IT has to evaluate and support.

This week, the WiMax Forum is hoping to certify an initial group of products that comply with the emerging wireless specification, which was designed to deliver networking performance that's comparable to what Digital Subscriber Line and cable modem services provide.

Meanwhile, Lenovo Group this month said it plans to develop a ThinkPad PC with embedded chips that let US users connect to Cingular's 3G wireless data network. That followed a flurry of similar announcements late last year by vendors such as Dell Hewlett-Packard and Vodafone.

The growing number of wireless options has left some IT managers grappling with the question of whether a feature like a 3G wireless radio device inside a notebook PC would even be beneficial for their staffers and end users.

"I don't find the choices confusing, just limiting," said Irving Tyler, CIO at Quaker Chemical Corp. in Conshohocken, Philadelphia. For example, Tyler said the ability to use an advanced wireless data network from a radio embedded in a laptop could be a good idea - provided the equipment could find the best signal available and maintain the connection across different channels, similar to the multiband cell phones carried by many international travelers.

Potential benefits
Embedding 3G in notebooks could simplify management and administration tasks, said Ben McLaren, technology services manager at Baptist Health System in Jacksonville, Florida. McLaren recently met with a sales representative from Panasonic Corporation of North America to talk about upcoming products with 3G. "They say it could drive down costs, and we're always interested in that," he said. But the embedded technology would make it harder to switch carriers, McLaren added.

Analysts noted that all of the recently announced PCs with embedded 3G support are designed to work with just one carrier's network.

"The difficulty is that once you buy a notebook with a 3G radio built in, you're stuck," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates in Northboro, Massachussetts. Swapping out a 3G chip and replacing it with another one could be "prohibitively" expensive, Gold said.

Buy cards, not integrated 3G notebooks
Gartner anticipated the 3G issue last summer, when it released a report advising companies to avoid buying PCs with integrated 3G equipment "unless you really need them." Users will have to pay monthly fees to mobile network operators for 3G-enabled notebooks, "regardless of whether they are used for mobile communications," Gartner said in the report. The firm instead recommended that IT managers buy 3G modem cards for their PCs.

PC makers and vendors of embedded 3G devices defended the new technology. For example, Sierra Wireless in Richmond, British Columbia, claimed that embedded 3G provides greater ease of use and more powerful antennas than removable devices and is less prone to damage.

3G modem cards are sold by carriers on two- and three-year subscriptions, the same as internal devices, said Trent Punnett, vice president of marketing and product management at Sierra Wireless, which sells modem cards as well as embedded devices. The only advantage to a modem card is the ability to move it between machines, Punnett said.

Playing 3G against Wi-Fi and WiMax
Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said that notebooks with built-in 3G will sell, despite the concerns cited in last summer's report. But the biggest wireless-related question for IT shops continues to be how to assess 3G against Wi-Fi and newer technologies such as WiMax, Dulaney and other analysts said.

"For the next few years, there's going to be no dominant wireless technology, and some organisations will have to have it all," with groups of end users favoring different protocols, Gold said. "There will be a lot of confusion."

The lesson for IT managers is that they need to remain flexible, he added. "Most IT guys want to throw up their hands and say, 'Don't bother me with this wireless stuff,' but they can't," Gold said.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group, said there is an enormous need for technology that can help users converge the various wireless protocols. "We're still in an unconverged environment, and it's like the Wild West," he said.

Tyler agreed and called on vendors "to take more responsibility for working together and solving the intratechnology movement issues."