Cutting loose

The mobile computing revolution is upon us with network carriers and hardware suppliers playing for the very highest stakes. If...

The mobile computing revolution is upon us with network carriers and hardware suppliers playing for the very highest stakes. If your business wants to be part of the revolution, you've got to make some technology and process changes. Mike Simons reports

It managers be warned, ignore the mobile computing revolution at your peril. Get your mobile strategy right and you will realise substantial productivity increases and open new lines of business. Get it wrong and you may discover, a few years from now, that you do not have an organisation at all. The IT and communications industries have never been prone to understatement. But when it comes to mobile computing there is hard cash behind the hype. Expect to see a multitude of new services being pushed at both business and consumer users in the coming few years.

Europe's leading mobile phone companies spent £22.5bn this spring to capture the five licences for the third-generation (3G) mobile spectrum in Britain. The seven-week long, 150-round bidding war saw some of the industry's most astute leaders head to head in a high-stakes poker game. The amounts they were prepared to pay to secure a prime position in the new world of communications stunned governments and industry observers around the globe.

Professor Nicholas Negroponte, director of the media laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leading technology guru, says that by initiating the auction the UKGovernment is condemning future generations to a tax on Internet technology. "What happened in the UK was disastrous," he told a communications conference last month. The cost of the licences amounted to $1,000 (£625) per subscriber, in addition to the cost of providing the service. "That $1,000 has no research behind it, no new products, no new infrastructure, no new handsets and no new potential for universal access or making this widely available," said Negroponte.

Unsurprisingly, mobile phone giant Nokia disagrees. It predicts operators will pay back their licence fee within five years of launching 3G services, largely through the predicted doubling of revenues per subscriber from new services. This, of course, leaves one wondering what the payback period would have been, had the Government not decided to auction the 3G licences.

You don't need to read the tea leaves to forecast the spectacular growth of mobile computing. Already, it is translating into vast expenditure on next-generation, low-power chip and software technologies. For example, the development of Transmeta's Crusoe chip was backed by Linux king Linus Torvalds and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allan and billionaire financier George Soros.

Analyst group Ovum estimates that by 2006 there will be 1.5 billion mobile subscribers globally of which 684 million will be microbrowser-enabled, using wireless application protocol (Wap) or other technologies. Analysts at Gartner are working on the assumption that by 2004 some 40% of mobile workers will need to carry equipment that offers instant access to voice and hourly responses to e-mail.

Forrester Research estimates that by this time next year all new mobile phones sold in the UK will be Wap-enabled and that by 2005 there will be 41 million mobile Internet users in the UK. Systems integrator Logica believes that by 2002 mobile telecoms operators will be sending 100 billion short messages a month worldwide, a predicted 170% increase per year over current levels. Logica believes the short message service (SMS) will play a key role in the introduction and diffusion of new mobile technologies like Wap, General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and 3G.

If the future for mobile computing seems assured, the picture becomes far hazier when it comes to the technologies that will underpin the move towards a mobile future.

There is enormous technological uncertainty, typified by the giant chip producer Texas Instruments, which last month went on an $8.5bn spending spree, buying up three wireless technology companies. The aim was to strengthen the company's position across all the emerging standards. Bob Carl, wireless computing unit manager for Texas Instruments, says the company aims to offer choice to customers, rather than try to impose its own standard on industry. "We want to be standards agnostic," said Carl.

While Texas Instruments is "standards agnostic", IT and communication managers will face the challenge of having to devise strategies to cope with suppliers promoting competing solutions based on mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and notebook PCs.

Other areas of uncertainty in the mobile computing world include security and managing staff relations in the new environment.

Security challenges

The security challenges have recently been brought to the public's attention by the loss of laptops by naval officers and MI5 spies, as well as by the discovery that a former chief of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)had thousands of top secret files on an insecure PC at his home.

But the issues go much deeper. Managing the workforce as technology dismantles the office presents its own unique challenges. There are also other factors that IT professionals managing the shift to mobile computing must take into account. The industry is currently struggling to cope with component shortages. Flash memory chips, which are used in PDAs, mobile phones and MP3 music players are in short supply, forcing Intel to announce a $2bn investment in flash memory production capacity. Liquid crystal display screens are even scarcer, with supply problems being blamed for high mobile PC prices and even the shortage of Nintendo's new Game Boy.

The UK Government, the European Union and the US Food and Drug Administration have all recently investigated the health and safety effects of mobile phone and computing technologies. All have agreed that there is no increased risk of cancer from using mobile devices. Nevertheless, the issue is likely to recur among both workers and local communities.

Mobile computing strategies could also be affected by regulatory uncertainty as governments try to intervene in imperfect markets (there is only a limited spectrum in which mobile service providers can operate). There is the uncertainty caused by the current frenzy of merger and acquisition activity. These will create a premium for developing and maintaining skills and ensuring maximum business flexibility.

Short-term agreements with partners, outsourcing and the use of application service providers seem certain to grow. But no matter how dynamic your organisation is and how careful you are, the brave new world of mobile computing will cause sleepless nights for IT and communications professionals. The productivity benefits for your organisation, however, make it likely to mean the gain proves to be worth the pain.

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