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Industry Insight
November 2001

Jim Machi

Wireless IP: Another Convergence?


Over the last year or so we've all been talking about the convergence of traditional fixed or landline networks with mobile voice, video, and data. But there's another important convergence afoot that hasn't received as much attention. Driven by the consumer hunger for anywhere, anytime communication, IP and wireless are coming together. And it's important to begin exploring this evolving landscape and what it means for the future of communications.

First let's define exactly what we mean by "IP" and what we mean by "wireless."

IP is short for Internet Protocol. Most data networks combine IP with a higher-level protocol called Transport Control Protocol (TCP), which establishes a virtual connection between a destination and a source. IP by itself is something like the "snail mail" postal system. It allows you to address a package and drop it in a network without ever establishing a specific or direct link between you and the recipient. TCP/IP, on the other hand, establishes a connection between two hosts so that they can send messages back and forth for a period of time.

"Wireless" describes telecommunications in which electromagnetic waves (instead of some form of wire) carry the signal over part or all of the communication path. A wireless device can connect to other devices like cellular phones, laptops, personal digital assistants (PDAs) with wireless modems, and wireless LANs. Generally, wireless IP is a gathered body of data or packets over a wireless transmission path.

It's always challenging to ensure that technologies complement each other -- and the convergence of IP and wireless is no exception. While IP has the greatest potential for bringing together next-generation voice networks, wireless is seen as the technology that will bridge the gap between the stationary and mobile workforces -- giving end users the "always connected" capabilities they crave.

In this case, the mobile/wireless device landscape is complex. And this complexity leads to some specific issues the industry must address as it adds IP to the wireless solution set:

  • Which devices will be best suited to which applications (wireless IP phone, PDA, etc.)?
  • Which devices will gain market segment leadership?
  • Will users continue to use targeted, standalone devices or migrate to multifunction devices such as those that combine the functionality of a PDA and a cellular phone?
  • What technological developments will ease existing device and connectivity constraints?
  • Does the solution environment have enough wireless IP bandwidth available?

Generally, striking the right balance will mean evaluating each mobile/wireless application and its requirements separately. Applications need to be evaluated for the frequency and type of data transfer they require. If an application only requires periodic synchronization with a central repository, but also involves significant amounts of data entry on the client device, then most of the application logic should be on the client device. For example, sync-based content delivery can be effective for applications that handle sales force automation. It would be easy to store catalogs, client information, reference material, and other structured data files on the device and update them periodically when the user returns to the office.

On the other hand, applications that require either frequent or on-demand updates from a central repository, but don't require much input from the client, might be better off with a thin-client architecture on a device that connects more frequently -- for instance, a cellular IP phone.

Of course, the greatest challenge will fall to developers of applications that require frequent, on-demand updates and rich graphical displays. These applications will need to add significant value to an organization to justify their development cost -- and the high risk of failure inherent in meeting their design goals.

Unfortunately, the development picture for these wireless applications will only become cloudier because of the ever-changing landscape and its impact on standardizing to a development environment and languages (for example, WML, XML, HTML, C-HTML, WAP, Java/ J2ME, C -- any derivative, HDML, XHTML, tag versus code). The marketplace's diversity, complexity, and constraints all make it hard for vendors to clearly see how to position themselves for success. For the same reasons -- and because of today's economic slump -- customers are reluctant to embark on extensive mobile/wireless projects unless they see the potential for significant cost savings, productivity gains, or a clear competitive advantage.

Device ergonomics, bandwidth, coverage, and roaming constraints -- plus the lack of heavy demand for these products -- all make it hard to predict just when the market for wireless IP solutions will take off. The more optimistic vendors point to standards that improve compression algorithms, intelligence controlling the display of the software residing on the device itself, and the growing demand for more information by both consumers and employees.

The eventual market segment opportunity will depend on the availability of more bandwidth and improvements to displays and mobile devices. End users are certainly attracted to the prospect of anytime, anywhere access to reliable information. That's why, despite the challenges, there's high interest in mobile devices, mobile access, and the potential of wireless IP for cellular phones. Vendors looking to penetrate this market segment will need to find a balance between establishing a track record of successful customer implementations and keeping themselves open to abrupt changes in the market segment.

The slowing U.S. economy has led to softer vertical and horizontal demand for wireless devices. Plus, this market segment is in for some real challenges in 2002 because of the ever-changing who's who in the wireless world, the new applications being developed, and the potential for wireless handheld vendors to support wireless IP.

The bottom line? Even though the general wireless industry remains a favorite high-tech opportunity, it's not immune to temporary setbacks and slowdowns. Although wireless and IP are here to stay, vendors and manufacturers will come and go and application development will struggle to stabilize. In the long run, we'll all be accessible anytime, anywhere -- and probably wishing we were still relying on our answering machines for near real-time communications.

Jim Machi is director, Product Management for the Intel Telecommunication and Embedded Group. The Intel Telecommunication and Embedded Group develops advanced communications technologies and products that merge data and voice technologies into a single network. For more information, visit www.intel.com.

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