The truly mobile worker who, PC in hand, travels the world in a whirlwind of productivity is certainly a utopian image. The reality is more likely to be late hours spent trying to log onto a network simply to collect e-mail. Too often the advantages of a notebook - namely its portability - are negated by the tangle of cables and cords.
With notebook sales sliding in recent months, it is little wonder vendors are eagerly anticipating the opportunities that wireless technology can generate in the market. The whispers of wireless LAN and Bluetooth technologies began more than 12 months ago; and as the technology matures, traditional notebook resellers will be able to enter the profitable networking sector. Of course, that is easier said than done.
Focusing on wireless connectivity
Bluetooth technology remains in its infancy and the take-up of wireless LAN has been less than stellar. But that hasn't discouraged vendors.
Toshiba has begun offering built-in wireless LAN functionality in its notebook range, although "the actual acceptance ratio has been fairly slow at this stage," admits Toshiba product marketing manager Laurie White.
He sees notebooks as "islands of information", just waiting for a cable to connect to a network. Using the 802.11b protocol, wireless LAN has an uninterrupted range of about 100 metres; Bluetooth is effective within 10 metres.
This year's focus for Toshiba is almost exclusively on wireless connectivity, with the recent announcement of a deal with broadband wireless service provider SkyNetGlobal to bring e-mail, Internet and office LAN connections to customers in airports and hotels around Australia.
"Companies such as SkyNetGlobal and other Toshiba resellers are setting themselves up as centres of excellence for wireless networking, and they will benefit because customers see a lot of value in being able to connect without wires," White says.
From a distribution point of view, wireless functionality is not a significant factor in terms of sales. Tech Pacific networking category manager David Higgins believes it is more about the applications the technologies will run.
"Bluetooth will make the synchronisation of data with various accessories easier by replacing cables, but as yet this is hardly compelling," he says. "Wireless Ethernet is really about convenience where the environment is not conducive to installing Category 5 cabling such as in schools, homes and heritage-listed buildings. These are not necessarily problems that drive enterprise computing. Wireless Ethernet is relatively slow at 11Mb/ps and doesn't have any Quality of Service built into the protocol - both limiting factors in the take-up by enterprises."
According to Compaq's product manager for wireless products, Chee Mei Gan, resellers will need to target smaller groups in the initial stages of the technology take-up. "Look at workgroups rather than approaching it from a company-wide perspective," she advises. "It is much easier to influence a more mobile workgroup in professional services such as accounting and law."
Tech Pacific's PC and server product manager Joshua Velling agrees these vertical markets will be important. "This technology represents a significant source of service revenue for resellers specialising in vertical service applications," he says. "It will also pave the way for resellers who are able to design solutions using a range of network devices that are just around the corner'," he says.
Selling the total solution
A relative newcomer to the notebook market, Sony sees the advantage of wireless technology linking multiple products. "A reseller who understands the technology will be able to resell that portfolio of products," says Sony's VAIO project leader in the consumer products division, Daniel Horan. "Currently resellers are looking at solutions and applications in a wired sense; if they continue down that path, they will be left behind."
Horan believes the one-on-one sale will be a major factor in the success of wireless. "It is really that value-add a reseller can provide that a manufacturer can't."
In the short term, IBM believes the technology will find favour in the SME and the education space. "Where it may be expensive to install Ethernet networks, then wireless LAN can be a more cost-effective and simpler solution, particularly in small businesses where staff and configuration changes frequently," says David Nicol, mobile computing product manager.
Nicol also sees opportunities for the development community to build their own solutions around the technology, particularly for Bluetooth. "Those customers that are looking at wireless are looking at the two technologies for different applications," he said. "It is therefore up to the resellers to implement their own solutions so the customers can see it working."
That seems to be already happening, with resellers such as the Mercury Group, which encompasses Laptop Land and pcauction, running its own wireless network out of its North Sydney office.
But widespread acceptance of the wireless world may take a while.
"We are all set to embrace wireless but it is not going to happen straight away, tomorrow or the next quarter," Compaq's Gan warns. "People are going to adopt it as they become more comfortable with it and as they see how it benefits them."
The security issue also provides both a potential barrier to the technology and an opportunity for the channel. Issues such as encryption, authentication and remote security management all need to be addressed to allay customers' fears.
"If you just say to a customer, here's a bunch of notebooks', then you cannot get close to solving what we think is a solution provider's job," says Toshiba's White. "It's important that this technology is easy to use from a user's perspective, yet on the back end there are a whole bunch of issues that need to be taken into consideration."
"As prices drop with increasing volume and competition, it is becoming a viable option when stacked up against wired networks," says Tech Pacific's Higgins. But he believes the advent of the high-speed wireless wide area network will really drive the market."
So everyone agrees wireless technology will have a significant influence on the market. As yet sales of wireless over wired are relatively small, but resellers on the ground floor of implementation who help end users gain more understanding of the advantages certainly stand to benefit most.