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Wireless databases not quite mainstream

Wireless data apps and hardware are held hostage by a lack of uniform industry standards and imperfect technology.

Wireless data revenue will exceed $8 billion by 2006, up from $1 billion in 2001, according to a forecast by Insight Research Corp., a telecommunications market research company in Parsippany, N.J. "The need to improve productivity across all businesses will fuel the explosion of horizontal wireless applications," the firm notes in a recent study.

Still, wireless data technologies frequently are viewed as a drain on profits. Constrained by shrinking budgets, IT departments struggle to justify return on investment for developing customized wireless data-access systems.

Aside from complex software and hardware issues, lack of a uniform wireless protocol in the U.S. is hampering product development and making compatibility difficult if not impossible. Wireless industry standards could emerge within the next year -- in time to support third-generation (3G) wireless product development. But for now, wireless databases remain largely outside the mainstream. For that reason, analysts say companies should tread lightly when considering wireless data applications for their enterprise.

"Basically, there are no hard numbers available on adoption -- the technology is maturing in parallel with the wireless industry, and the market is still waiting for the next generation stuff," says Brian Jones, an analyst with Boston-based Yankee Group. "It's not yet clear what devices will be standard and that, along with the general economic slowdown, is keeping a lot of companies on the sideline."

Going mobile

Wireless databases are not the province solely of sophisticated high-tech companies, according to Matthew Hardin, chief technology officer for Symas Corp., a software developer in Berkeley, Calif. Take the case of the "major hotel chain" that is using Symas's wireless software technology to speed up guest check-in. Service reps, equipped with wireless "wearable" computing devices that access the hotel's central database, greet guests in the parking lot, remotely verify their registration and process credit card transactions -- even cutting a new room key on the spot.

Rather than develop a specialty application optimized for wireless, the chain chose Symas to modify its existing application to run in a wireless environment. "This is database access from the application that runs on the wireless wearable to a collection of database files, using file service. It's about as close to a wireless database as you can get," says Hardin.

Field service technicians or salespeople with large mobile workforces could also benefit from wireless access to data, says Jones. "These are workers who need access to up-to-date information to do their jobs effectively," he says.

Other early-adopting industries include the emergency services/medical profession and delivery services/courier companies.

Count the cost

Developing wireless applications and database systems that enable workers -- both those using wireless devices and those at the desktop -- to access identical data on a central database server is neither easy nor cheap. You'll need to acquire or develop special software applications, as well as make modifications to database servers and infrastructure, to process wireless data transactions.

"You should expect your wireless system, assuming it's for a deployment of 100 or 200 people, to cost in the range of a quarter of a million dollars," says Andrew Breem, an executive with ThinAirApps, a New York City-based applications developer. "That's just for the software. Analysts are saying annualized cost for hardware support is about $1,000 per device. It can be really difficult, even for a large business, to prove the ROI on that large of an investment."

Wireless devices (with the exception of laptops using wireless cards) possess limited computer-processing power. Since databases consume a lot of memory, companies that must have wireless databases should load only essential subsets of data on a handheld, says Jon Rubin, a senior research analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group.

"Historically, there have been small-footprint databases that could fit on smaller devices. Therein lies another problem: synchronizing any changes to that wireless database with the central database when a user is in disconnected mode," Rubin says.

Installing a smaller version of the larger database on a wireless device, including customer files for a selected worker's sales region, enables continuous access even if a network connection falters. "That's where it makes sense to have a local copy of the database on the wireless device. But being disconnected is not a condition you'd want," says Rubin.

Another factor to weigh: the reliability and scope of your wireless provider. Breem recommends asking the following questions when choosing a provider: "Will the network provide the coverage you need? Which is most important: speed, or having a broad coverage area?"

Quantifying ROI

Hardin says blue-collar industries will drive continued adoption of wireless data-access products. "Telephone linesmen, aircraft mechanics -- any industry that has mobile workers who need access to information on the spot, and where giving them access to that information will help them do their jobs better and faster," says Hardin.

Despite the reluctance shown by companies to invest heavily in wireless data applications, Breem notes one clear metric companies could use in making their assessment: Time is money. "If giving your salespeople access to their sales force automation system, remotely and in real time, enables them to make 10 or 15 more customer calls per day, that directly affects the bottom line."

Garry Kranz is a freelance technology and business writer based in Richmond, Va.

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