One hundred years ago, at his home in Italy, twenty-two year old William Marconi made a startling discovery. He found that he could transmit electronic signals, such as those generated by telegraph, between two points without the use of wires. For the next five years, he worked tirelessly on his discovery until finally it was unveiled to the world–and the world has never been the same since.
At the time, it was simply called wireless, and when Marconi demonstrated it at the turn of the century by transmitting and receiving a message across the Atlantic Ocean, people from New York to Paris were amazed. Nowadays we call Marconi’s invention radio and the term "wireless" has moved on to become associated with computers, telephones and the world of data communications. While we may no longer be amazed by radio, we are still undoubtedly amazed by wireless. It most likely has to do with the fact that you cannot see it and you cannot touch it. At least you can see a wire (and trip over it for that matter.) But moving data over thin air, or ether as it was known in Marconi’s era, still boggles the mind.
Now we’ve suddenly got hundreds, if not thousands, of companies vying to cut away the ties that bind us to electrical sockets and phone ports and enable us to fly free as birdsÑwhile still remaining in touch. And there are countless different wireless solutions as well.
Microsoft is one of those companies, and it believes that one of its solutions–combining wireless data access with a Pocket PC–will be the hot ticket for 2001.
But is it all do-able, to use a 21st century idiom? In other words, is wireless on a Pocket PC all it’s cracked up to be? Or is it more hype than reality, more sizzle than steak?
Well, maybe it’s a little of both.
The truth of the matter is there are three significant impediments that Microsoft and its cadre of Pocket PC manufacturing partners have laying in its path to mobile nirvana. These bumps in the road are not all their own doing. Regardless, they will likely not be easily overcome in 2001, or in the next five years for that matter.
First, there’s the infrastructure. Although there are grand plans for high-speed wireless, the most promising ones–CDMA2000 Phase 2 and UMTS–are relegated to the distant future. The logistics involved with rolling out a new wireless infrastructure in the United States–even to just the urban centers, forsaking the rural areas–are overwhelming and necessitate a multi-year plan. Just ask Metricom, whose high-speed Ricochet wireless network’s footprint remains tiny, and spotty, even after five years.
There’s also the chicken-and-the-egg syndrome at work here. Which will come first, wireless Pocket PCs or high-speed wireless networks? Will we be stuck with PDAs capable of browsing the Web but networks that aren’t up to the task? This is an age-old dilemma and, think about it, would we have ever seen an Internet if it hadn’t been for governmental deep pockets? The answer is, more likely than not, a resounding no.
Second, there’s cost. The average Pocket PC will set you back upwards of $500. Tack on a wireless modem and you’re in the $700-$1,000 range, and then there are the monthly access and subscription fees. Scale that to tens of thousands of mobile workers in a company and you’ve got quite an investment, and that’s before adding in the costs associated with custom software and modifications to existing systems to enable secure, mobile access to company data.
And, bottom line, is there a definitive payback for a company, or is it simply another high-tech gamble, a la the Web?
This also leaves Joe Consumer in the dark. Sure, you’ll have a few million technology enthusiasts all over the world forking out the hefty wireless entry fee but, in general, most consumers will not. And it will take hundred of millions of Wireless Data customers to convince companies to accelerate their investment in high-speed networks. What’s needed is a moderately priced wireless solution for the average consumer, something that may be at least five years away.
Finally, wireless needs a solid revenue model that will support content providers as well as service providers. As I mentioned, a business plan for the Internet would have never seen the light of day, even in 1999’s money-to-burn VC world. Wireless Data is in the same predicament.
The Web’s revenue model continues to evolve in an effort to find itself. Content providers locked into advertising based models found themselves part of a house of cards when the Web boom softened in late 2000. Will it take a "killer" mobile e-commerce app to promulgate a mass move to wireless Internet devices? Or will consumers be willing to pay for the privilege of data anytime, anywhere? Obviously there are more questions that answers.
As to how it will all shake out with Pocket PC’s latest foray into wireless, I’m as curious to know as you are. Maybe that’s what it was like during the prior turn of the century, when Marconi’s utterly amazing discovery tickled the imaginations of inventors and entrepreneurs.
And maybe one day, when "wireless" PDAs are as common as radio and TV are now, the term "wireless" will once again come to mean something new and exciting that we haven’t even yet thought of.
And I am sure it will be something really amazing.