Wireless LAN (WLAN) is a technology whose time has come. Shrinking prices and clear business benefits are persuading users in the general business market to take the plunge. And though margins are relatively thin, resellers are ideally placed to guide users through the maze of standards, security and performance issues (see part one, MicroScope, 12 March) and make a pretty penny in the process.
Traditionally, WLAN has been associated with the retail and distribution markets, but the big growth today is in the corporate and SME environments where the technology is delivering significant business benefits. One of the clearest benefits is mobility - of staff and the network itself. Neil Froggatt, information systems manager at City recruitment firm Devonshire, implemented WLANs in the company's London and Frankfurt offices last year. "Users love it. In London, we have some very plush meeting rooms that aren't cabled up to the network. Staff can now take a laptop in there and connect to the network without any hassle," he says.
In Frankfurt, the benefits are more to do with mobility of the network and ease of management. "It's a small branch office that's growing rapidly. New employees can simply put a WLAN card in their laptop and access the network. It also dramatically reduces the need to have IT staff on the premises. Plus, when we outgrow the office, we can simply take the network with us. You could say we've seen an almost instant return on our investment," remarks Froggatt.
Small, growing offices are a key target market for WLAN resellers. Others include temporary offices (such as those set up by building firms at large sites) and listed buildings. Mark Titcombe, business development manager at value-added reseller 1-2-1 Euro Technology, says: "We're seeing a lot of WLANs going into listed buildings because you can't just drill a hole in the wall."
Yuri Pasea, managing director of distributor Centia, which operates from a listed building in Newbury, says: "WLAN made it very easy for us to move in quickly and get work done. It significantly enhances the working environment because we don't have the whole building flooded with cable."
Another key target market is any company with a warehouse or storage area. "At the moment, warehousing is very much a batch-type operation where you go round with your handheld device and scan in a few bits and pieces. With WLAN, you can start making the whole warehousing process far more online and interactive," comments Pasea.
Nick Kotze, a senior consultant at solutions provider NSC Global, adds: "There are quite a few opportunities in that market to develop niche products for these types of company - and it's not just traditional warehouses. You should also think about such outfits as car hire companies, for example. WLAN can, and does, save them time and money. If resellers can show them how, they will buy." Countdown to take-off Last year, Ian Foxley, information systems director at Domino's Pizza, installed WLAN in the company's head office at Milton Keynes and in its warehouse and distribution facility next door. "It has transformed the way people work," he says. "They can actually carry on working while moving around the business. We've got about 21 laptops connected so far. The system has grown so quickly that we've had to get a third access point."
Foxley is certain WLAN will take off in a big way. "I see it as one of the formative elements of the hands-free corporation," he says. "It's going to happen."
Other niche markets where WLAN would be an obvious benefit include education and restaurants. "We've found that the restaurant trade is looking at systems for, say, ordering straight from the table," Titcombe says. "The waitress comes up, she has a device and as soon as you place your order, it's relayed to the kitchen." However, there are probably fewer opportunities to add value here since security and performance issues are not as important.
More of a money-spinner may be those firms looking to change the way they work entirely - moving towards a far more mobile workforce. Howard Hines, general manager of technical services at BT Ignite Solutions, says: "A number of new opportunities are starting to emerge. People are saying, 'that will help me run my business more efficiently'. In a number of current bids we've got going, customers are looking to use WLANs to change their business processes and way of working. That obviously starts to shift the value point quite significantly to the point where we're creating new markets."
So it's clear the markets are out there and growing, but with margins on hardware shrinking, how easy is it to add value? Colin Bateman, general manager of distributor Multicap, thinks the answer lies in the type of products you're selling.
"Essentially, resellers need to make sure they're selling products that allow them to maintain a margin," he says. "There is a whole raft of 802.11b products out there that all do pretty much the same thing, but some are very cheap and nasty. They're over-distributed, vendors are selling them direct to PC World and off-the-page merchants as well as disties and there just isn't any margin in it for the channel. You need to go to the next level, the enterprise-type product with the sort of features that any
business needs from its network infrastructure - better security features, greater manageability, improved filtering capabilities, physically more robust, better performance, etc. If you sell true business-class products, there's plenty of value you can add and plenty of margin to be made."
In the know But it's not only selection of hardware that's important. There are a lot of other factors that resellers need to address. "You need to know what you're talking about to sell WLANs," says Titcombe. "There's a lot that goes round it, such as site surveys. You need to understand where the user's signal is going to get trapped and what the problems are going to be. We make most of our money on things like that."
He adds resellers also need to familiarise themselves with issues such as interoperability where he claims there are serious issues. "Different manufacturers have certain proprietary elements to their products that bolt on and add value to their offering. But that doesn't necessarily work with someone else's products. I think that's where a specialist comes in - being able to advise on how to steer clear of those problems or, if a user already has them, how to solve them."
Then, of course, there's the whole issue of security and, as WLAN grows in popularity, some analysts have warned that other problems may emerge, such as interference where Bluetooth and 802.11b networks are used together, integration with corporate networks, and so on.
But as Hines says: "At the end of the day, it's good news for solutions providers and customers because WLAN is no longer going be seen as an isolated technology niche. It's going to be part of the corporate infrastructure and the opportunity to manage that consistently as an end-to-end service is going to become a reality."
www.121eurotech.co.uk www.centia.co.uk www.ignite.com/uk www.multicap.co.uk www.nscglobal.co.uk
This was first published in March 2002