The Future’s Here

Passing through Denver airport on a re-cent trip to the US, I was amazed to
see that almost all the boarding gates had become wireless ‘hot spots’. Take
out your computer, click your browser and you are on the Web faster than you can
even say ‘PDA’. With the number of ‘hot spots’ expected to soar from a
few hundred in 2003 to over a hundred thousand by the end of the decade and with
cellular providers like Sprint and Verizon boosting the capabilities of their
wide area networks to facilitate high-speed data transfer, the world is changing
faster than many of us would imagine.

What has been the sequence of events leading up this movement of wireless
technologies into the mainstream of business?

“The cost of setting up and moving wireless networks is becoming a fraction of wired Ethernet. And third-party software will address security concerns before long”


The ill-fated Apple Newton introduced in 1993 was probably the first attempt
in this area but it was the introduction of the Palm Pilot three years later
that really set off the revolution in handheld computing. And now notebook
computers with Intel’s Centrino technology come with inbuilt-wireless
capabilities, while PDAs–with wireless connectivity through national and
international carriers, smart phones and pocket PCs are beginning to merge in
terms of features and functionalities. Tight integration between computing and
communications is enabling seamless handling of voice, data e-mail and text
messages with MMS services.

Public Wi-Fi systems are becoming the order of the day with more and more
people slipping a wireless LAN card in their computers and connecting at
airports, bookstores, and coffee shops. Airlines like Lufthansa and SAS have
introduced the service on their flights and SBC plans to make countrywide access
points a reality, starting with 13 states in the US. The proliferation is being
helped by substantial reductions in costs of routers, access points, LAN cards,
and other devices. Also, the cost of setting up and moving wireless networks is
now becoming a fraction of traditional wired Ethernet. And as the 802.11b
standard yields the more advanced standards with higher bandwidths and higher
ranges, more advanced applications like video will be enabled. The only concern
that remains is one of security against hackers, but newer third-party software
will result in industry-strength features in this area as well.

The concept of ubiquitous computing that makes wireless so attractive is also
being extended to global positioning satellite (GPS) technologies, wireless cash
registers, and radio frequency identification (RFID) systems. Logistics firms
running delivery operations across vast geographies are able to schedule and
service customer needs better and faster using GPS; retailers and manufacturers
are able to track supplies and inventory across the supply chain using RFID; and
the day is not far when all these facilities will get fully integrated and the
science fiction dream of locating a restaurant, making a reservation, finding
the lowest prices and paying without cash are all available to completely
transform the day-to-day processes of working and living. I remember writing in
this column a couple of years ago about the modern man in a smart world leaving
his office in a car that receives a message from the refrigerator at home that
there is no milk, and how the car routes its journey via the grocer’s store,
where the order has already been placed and is ready for pickup. All that and
more is waiting to happen in the very near future.

Will the wireless revolution transform this country soon? Of course it will,
as some industry leaders like RPG Retail, Hindustan Construction, and Star TV
begin to emulate the global best in class. And if there is one area where
Indians are already ahead of their US corporate brethren, it is SMS. Sitting in
a plane at Newark airport one morning and busy sending and receiving messages to
my office in Pune, it was wonderful to watch the amazement on the face of my
American neighbor to witness this wireless transaction happening across
thousands of miles, which reminded me of what Alvin Toffler said once:
"Some mortals would suffer the dizzying disorientation caused by the
premature arrival of the future!"

Ganesh Natarajan
The author is deputy chairman & managing director of Zensar Technologies
and chairman of Nasscom’s SME Forum for Western India

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