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Wireless applications maturing, expert says

Mobile application technology is evolving to include more than wireless additions to existing applications, according to analyst Tim Scannell.

CHICAGO -- Though the wireless Internet has a long way to go before most companies start investing heavily in mobile deployments, more companies are likely to try it out in the next year.

Tim Scannell, president of the Quincy, Mass.-based mobile research firm Shoreline Research, said there are some indications that wireless is becoming more viable.

Tim Scannell, Shoreline Research

While wireless networks are still slow, unreliable and geographically limited, Scannell -- who spoke at the recent Networking Decisions conference -- said there are some bright spots in the industry that should not be overlooked.

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One key way that mobile systems can become more useful is if the technology offers more functions than those that simply allow users to access important data on the network. Now, he said, some companies are starting to develop mobile applications that are more than simply wireless additions to existing applications. They allow users to manipulate crucial network-based information like databases.

Mobile-centric functionality like that will greatly increase the value of wireless applications, he said.

Notoriously unusable mobile devices are also improving. Scannell expects to see many tablet PC devices with large, high-quality screens hitting the market next year. Those devices will do a much better job of displaying information than the tiny screens on many handheld devices. Other new devices are better designed to allow people to input data, a longtime stumbling block for the industry.

New systems also allow users to roam between different networks. For example, the Oakland, Calif., police department is using a system that allows its squad cars to roam from their wireless local area network (wireless LAN) to the cellular network and back, giving its officers constant access to data in the field.

That is something that John Hawkins, technology planning manager for Maricopa Community College in Phoenix, Ariz., and an attendee at Networking Decisions, said he will eventually need to address. Students tend to be early adopters of technology, he said. In response to student demand, he has already rolled out a wireless LAN across campus. It is only a matter of time before they begin using data devices on cellular networks, he said. It's inevitable that students will eventually want to roam between the wireless wide area network and the wireless LAN.

But many Networking Decisions attendees were not sold on the value or the viability of these wide area network mobile deployments.

Harold Holec, an e-mail architect with the Eden Prairie, Minn., health care information systems provider Ingenix Inc., said his company has been dabbling with mobile technology but that right now there is no pressing need for it.

He said that when the company's executives are on the road, they stay in hotels that often have slow dial-up access to the Internet. He'd like the executives to be able to use mobile phones as wireless modems. But the wireless networks are neither fast enough nor reliable enough to make this a worthwhile endeavor, he said.

Faye Hylton, a senior network engineer with Lockheed Martin, agreed. The cellular system is simply not there yet. "They can't even get cell phones to work right," she said at the conference. "I won't trust anything more important, like data or critical information, to a wireless system."

But Scannell has faith that these issues will be ironed out in time.

"It takes time for technology to find its niche," he said. "PCs took 20 to 30 years; this technology will take a while to settle."

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