Europe blows the wireless lead

Overly concerned with security issues, European companies have been overtaken by the US in allowing staff to access corporate...

Overly concerned with security issues, European companies have been overtaken by the US in allowing staff to access corporate applications at the point of need. James Monroy reports

While US chief information officers embrace wireless computing and the business benefits opened up by untethered access to corporate data, many of their European counterparts remain on the sidelines, fazed by the perceived instability of an infant market.

Underpinned by ubiquitous GSM (Global System for Mobile) coverage, Europe has raced ahead of the US in mobile phone penetration and consumer wireless Internet use, setting up a promising platform for widespread corporate adoption. However, experts concur that US firms have snatched the lead in wireless take-up, shrugging off far patchier network coverage and incompatible cellular systems. The question is how long European CIOs can afford to sit out what many view as a major advance in computing capability until the market has solved lingering issues of security holes, bandwidth constraints and mutually exclusive data protocols.

For firms relying extensively on road warriors to clinch sales or to service customers, the ability to tap corporate applications at the point of need confers an edge they can ill afford to wait for, says Tim Sheedy, European mobile research manager for industry-watcher IDC. While the market is still getting its act together there is less urgency for firms whose field operations are not so crucial, concedes Sheedy, but he warns against waiting for that elusive perfect day. "The US didn't get ahead in the Internet by waiting for everyone to get an Internet-connected PC," he points out.

But with many European firms still in the throes of e-business projects - integrating the wired Internet into supply chains and customer transactions - wireless enablement is just another burden for stretched CIOs. Although many of the supposed risks and limitations of mobile computing are less forbidding than they might first seem, key challenges remain that make it harder to gain the rewards.

Security concerns about transmitting competitive data to low-power devices beyond the corporate firewall loom large. However, the most controversial vulnerability in WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) - namely, the system for presenting Internet-based applications to cellphones and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) - remains theoretical. The WAP gap - the instant that data lies unscrambled between wireline and wireless encryption standards as its crosses from wire to air and vice versa - has brought about no documented hacks.

Moreover, version 2 of WAP, which is expected to underpin microbrowsers from late 2001, closes the gap, letting users bypass carriers' gateways to connect directly with mobile devices.

Better-founded security concerns include the difficulty of offering the most rigorous hackproofing on current portable devices, which lack the computing power to support 128-bit encryption.

One of the commonest arguments for delaying wireless roll-out is the sluggish 14.4Kbps maximum data throughput offered by current wireless networks - compared with to 56Kbps from a wired modem - which puts corresponding limitations on application performance. Third-generation networks offering five-to-15-times this bandwidth are expected to be available late next year, while the upcoming deployment of GPRS (General Packet Radio System) will enable applications to use bandwidth more sparingly.

Yet while these developments will permit richer content to be downloaded to mobile devices, today's bandwidth ceiling is rarely a drag on wireless applications using the elliptical wireless markup language (WML), says Andrew Seybold, editor-in-chief of influential US newsletter, Wireless Outlook. Additionally, wireless versions of applications typically swap sophisticated, bandwidth-intensive desktop functionality for a stripped-back interface configured around a narrower set of needs.

Where first-mover CIOs confront a minefield, however, is in choosing SMS (Short Messaging System) and unified messaging applications. Carriers' incompatible data protocols often preclude users within the same country from sending messages to one another. This is especially problematic as messaging is tipped to be one of the first wireless applications that enterprises will adopt.

Despite the need to plot a careful path, many organisations simply can't ignore the competitive advantage of allowing their sales staff to place orders direct from customer sites using an Internet-connected PDA, cellphone or two-way pager.

According to Sheehan, US organisations are pragmatic about deploying wireless applications. "It's just a way of hitting customers," he says. Maybe UK CIOs should adopt this low-key approach to avoid feeling overwhelmed by all the variables in the wireless equation.

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