Author William Gibson once wrote, "The future is here, it is just not evenly distributed." The most dramatic recent example I've seen of this is the "mobile enterprise."
By this I mean enterprise applications that extend through the firewall all the way to handheld devices. I know you've heard it all before. The mere mention of 3G is enough to irritate anyone who endured the pervasive computing hype a few years ago. Those who tried it were rewarded with endless connect times, slow downloads, dropped connections, wimpy handhelds and crummy apps.
But that's the way things happen in what I call the industry's hype-bust-infrastructure (HBI) cycle. I'm ancient enough to remember the first "multimedia PC," which featured a 150 kbit/s CD-ROM drive. It was a joke until a few years later when much faster CD-ROM drives simply became another boring PC component. The HBI cycle is going to take much longer for high-speed wireless access from anywhere. But in the meantime, the infrastructure and the applications are percolating along under the radar. And next year we're going to see a midsize wave of adoption.
I'm not talking about the vertical markets, where delivery guys transmit reorder details or doctors check their wireless Treos for nasty drug interactions. I'm talking about enterprise apps that people like us might use. Almost coincidentally, several pieces of technology are falling into place that will make the mobile enterprise entirely plausible.
Let's start with security. You need a VPN or an SSL connection to access enterprise apps remotely. But neither works well in a wireless environment, where connections drop regularly. RIM cracked this problem first, with an end-to-end encrypted connection built to handle random interruptions (read about RIM's latest additions). Last February, Good Technology announced a similar scheme for Windows handhelds.
Meanwhile, as Microsoft finalises Visual Studio 2005, the company is bending over backwards to make targeting of Pocket PCs and smart phones easy (with ever-changing operating systems, among other things), so that developing for cute little devices will be part of the normal development cycle for enterprise apps.
Combine Windows apps with Good Technology's security, and you have not only e-mail on Windows handhelds, but also little smart clients that can tap into back-end enterprise systems. Everyone talks about sales-force automation and order entry. But for execs toting handhelds - the real early adopters - business intelligence or business activity monitoring may be the most attractive options (here is a comparison of the handheld platforms available).
Oops, I keep saying "handhelds." What I really mean to say is "smart phones." The lovely Treo 600 (reviewed here,/a>) finally abolished the notion that phones and handhelds should be separate devices. And we should see a flood of improved Windows smartphones next year.
And what of high-speed wireless? True, 2.5G has crept its way into most urban areas in the United States, [and larger parts of Europe, Eric - Editor], offering dial-up-like speeds. If you're lucky enough to live in Washington, DC, or San Diego, you've got the chance to experience something even better. Those cities are where Verizon Communications Inc. has rolled out pilot versions of its EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) wireless data service.
Verizon's EvDO is getting raves, with some users claiming download speeds of 700 kbit/s. Of course, with a few hundred people sharing the signal from one cell tower, that number would probably drop. But it's a start. And Verizon plans to spend US$500 million over the next year expanding its EvDO infrastructure.
The catch is that the EvDO service costs $80 per month. My guess is that Verizon is price rationing; it doesn't want a bunch of people using the system and slowing it down before the infrastructure is built out. Meanwhile, smartphones with fast wireless connections will be about as evenly distributed as corner offices. And the people who work in those offices will get this whizzy new technology long before everyone else.