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TECHNOLOGY: The 'W' zone

TECHNOLOGY: The 'W' zone

According to Microsoft, future services will be "hung" off individual workers, no matter where they go. But regardless of the software giant's spin, the world is indeed moving towards a less hard-wired definition of Web services - and our view of the workplace is changing.

So far, many corporate IT departments have ignored workers who step outside the hard-wired workplace, but they do so at their own peril. In fact, the merger of WLANs (wireless LANs) and Web services promises significant costs savings for enterprises that choose to go with the flow instead of fighting it.

Wi-Fi: blasting ahead

Attendees at last January's Sundance Film Festival in the US were treated to a nice surprise when printed film catalogues and schedules were replaced with online ones. Festival-goers used Pocket PCs equipped with wireless cards to access the material.

Credit the 802.11b (known as "Wi-Fi") standard for the move forward. Wi-Fi is a wireless extension of Ethernet that allows users to cruise the Web at speeds up to 11Mbit/sec, provided they stay within range of an access point. (Realistically, however, many users insist that speeds of 350Kbit/sec are more typical because the bandwidth is shared among all users connecting through an individual access point.) Wi-Fi, which operates on a frequency of 2.4GHz, works within a range of 30 to 45 metres inside buildings, and as far as 450 metres outside. As with cordless telephones, it goes through walls.

All very impressive, but couple Wi-Fi with emerging trends in Web services and the technology becomes truly transformative. That's because both technologies promise to dramatically reduce IT costs.

For example, instead of wiring buildings for networking, many companies are choosing to implement 802.11b on each floor or in each department, replacing kilometres of dedicated cable with a handful of access points. Join that with Web services based on XML and/or Java, and you've got a recipe for the future of IT - the ability to deploy flexible, interoperable applications on the Web, communicating easily without much of the manual reprogramming required today.

High-end Palm devices support 802.11b and the company aims to own the bulk of the market for PDAs. But Microsoft is on the prowl with its .NET Web services initiative, which aims to take advantage of a tight linkage to wireless technologies. For starters, Windows XP includes support for Wi-Fi, as does Windows CE .NET, the OS for Microsoft's next generation of Pocket PC devices. This is important because the two operating systems are cornerstones of Microsoft's client strategy as it rolls out .NET My Services later this year, or early in 2003. In fact, Pocket PC 2002 (the latest version of Windows CE) already supports 802.11b, but Microsoft is hedging its bets by including support for the competing Bluetooth technology, as well as cellular technologies.

In addition, Windows CE/Pocket PC includes an XML parser, making it both wireless-ready and Web services-ready. As Microsoft unveils more of its .NET initiative, look for the linkage between the two to solidify even further - especially at the client end. And later this year, expect Microsoft to deliver on Blizzard, its business-oriented services subset of .NET My Services.

In Microsoft's .NET vision, developers will use Visual Studio .NET, the company's multilanguage IDE, to create Web services applications for the .NET Framework running on a .NET server. For the client, the company has also created the .NET Compact Framework.

And there's even more in the works - another, faster version of the standard, dubbed 802.11a or "Wi-Fi5" (operating in the 5GHz frequency range), which will run at 54Mbit/sec. In the early stages, Wi-Fi5 will be incompatible with the earlier standard and will have a shorter range. But commercial products are already shipping, and the standard is expected to hit critical mass around midyear.

Bluetooth and cellular reply

Bluetooth, 802.11's arch-enemy, also operates in the 2.4GHz band, although with a shorter range (from nine to 91 metres) and slower speeds (from 384Kbps to 720Kbps). But the technology's supporters point out that, in a Bluetooth-enabled world, workers would be able to carry their wireless devices into a room and instantly be "recognised" by any Bluetooth-enabled devices nearby, such as laser printers. Better yet, the technology also promises lower costs than other wireless options.

Bluetooth stumbled out of the

starting blocks and is currently lagging in many important areas, not the least of which is a dearth of products. For example, when Windows XP shipped in October, it came with built-in 802.11b support, but a notable lack of Bluetooth support.

Nevertheless, things are starting to change. Vendors such as IBM, Sony and Toshiba are shipping laptops with both Bluetooth and 802.11b built in. And Microsoft claims it still intends to support Bluetooth in Windows XP, when peripherals that use the technology begin shipping and enough device drivers are available. Ultimately, Bluetooth visionaries foresee a time when the chips to implement the technology are so inexpensive and ubiquitous that they will be embedded in literally everything - from your microwave to the buttons on your clothes.

Meanwhile, mobile phone manufacturers and cellular phone carriers are working assiduously to ensure they are not left behind. Last November, Nokia and other major cellular wireless players launched their "open mobile architecture initiative", aimed at standardising protocols and technologies for Web phones.

In December, Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems, Borland Software, Oracle and IBM also joined in, so it was no surprise that one of the technologies adopted was Java. Sun is currently working to incorporate new APIs into J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) to better support wireless technologies on the server. Sun is also banking on its J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition) technology, which runs Java on wireless devices. In response, Nokia is planning to unveil its first Java phone in the US in Q3.

The outer limits

Although cell towers are more ubiquitous than short-range 802.11b base stations, they have their limitations. Many plans charge by the minute, pushing the dream of "always-on" connectivity out of reach for many businesses. And despite the fact that cell towers can be placed much further apart than 802.11b base stations, the data rates available from even 3G (third-generation) mobile networks are substantially slower - in some cases as sluggish as 60Kbps, which is not significantly faster than a dial-up modem connection. Still, cellular technologies have their adherents, who point out that users can guarantee connectivity, which is still an open question with 802.11 networks not built by large carriers.

To some enterprises, the prospect of circumventing the major carriers could result in even more dollars being lopped off the expense sheet. Given that Wi-Fi base stations and wireless modem cards are already relatively inexpensive, it's not surprising that enthusiasts in the US have been busily setting up their own WLANs and sharing the bandwidth with anyone who cares to use it. Some wireless advocates even speak of a sort of "ad hoc Internet". In Australia, it's suggested a person could stay wirelessly connected while driving from one side of a capital city to the other, the session passing along from one connection point to the next, never crossing a public network.

But killing off the telecommunications giants remains a highly unlikely scenario. Big players such as Deutsche Telekom are already investing in Wi-Fi firms.

Beam me up - but how?

In the world of wireless, it's never easy to pick winners and losers. Right now, 802.11 looks like a solid choice. Yes, many issues have yet to be addressed, such as billing, peer-to-peer interactions at the edge of the network, radio interference, security and the consolidation of countless independent WLANs. But Wi-Fi also provides the least expensive, most flexible environment for companies attempting to distribute wireless Web services.

Of course, over the long term, enterprises should keep a close eye on Bluetooth and cellular technologies, selecting those that best suit individual situations. For instance, if users need text-based information delivered in a consistent fashion anywhere in the world, 3G cellular technology may turn out to be the most appropriate solution.

It's also important to remember that Web services and WLAN technologies are not wedded together, and that the larger players are hedging their bets. For example, Microsoft, the great champion of Wi-Fi, recently demonstrated the latest version of its Pocket PC 2002 and touted it as being ideally suited for the provision of Web services over cellular wireless networks.

So which wireless technologies - 802.11, Bluetooth or 3G - will walk down the aisle with Web services? Right now, it looks like Wi-Fi - but only time will tell.


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