Mobile Computing Goes Wireless

Mobile Computing Goes Wireless<@VM>Mobile Computing Not What It Used to Be

By Drew Robb

Just as government information technology departments were beginning to come to terms with the maintenance and security challenges of notebooks, the rapidly changing world of mobile computing has taken a new twist: wireless.

The efficiency, reliability and cost of wireless applications finally have reached the point where large-scale implementation is a reality.

"Just look at what the Web has done for the work environment," said John Inkley, manager of federal sales for Palm Inc., Santa Clara, Calif. "If you move that to the wireless handheld, you provide the same level of access to the same back-end databases without requiring the user to sit at a desktop terminal."

With over $1 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2000, Palm has dozens of projects in the federal sector, including the Navy, the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Postal Service.

One application involves the use of handhelds on the aircraft carrier USS Constellation to grade the landing of every plane on the ship. In the old days, the Naval landing signal officers would call out all phases of the approach to someone, who would record it using a pen, paper and flashlight. Now, they have replaced that with the Palm Pilot.

Once information is entered into the handheld units, it is transmitted to the central Naval database. These operations are performed either via modem, wireless or by plugging the Palm into a docking cradle connected to a port on an onboard computer.

According to Inkley, the Secret Service, Defense Department and a multitude of other government agencies are using the Palm because of its mobility and ease of use.

"People can't keep up with the growth of the handheld market," he said. "If you look at the forecasts of two years ago, we've probably already doubled that."

Inkley's optimism for the mobile and wireless marketplace is shared by leading analysts. International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., predicts that by 2003, more people will be accessing the Web from wireless and handheld devices than from conventional, hard-wired PCs. IDC numbers suggest 720 million mobile Internet subscribers compared to 525 million wired users
The Aberdeen Group of Boston and the GartnerGroup of Stamford, Conn., have issued similar forecasts.

"Those who treat the arrival of wireless access to the Internet as just another terminal device and protocol to worry about will find themselves as far behind as those that thought the Internet was not relevant to their industry or community," said Simon Hayward, research director at GartnerGroup.

What does this mean for government? "We see a steady migration from the desktop out to handheld in the federal sector," said Dan Shell, consulting system engineer for Cisco Systems Inc., who focuses on wireless, mobile IP and satellite technologies in the federal market.

As the largest manufacturer of network and Internet routers with earnings in 2000 of $18.9 billion, Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif., is particularly active in mobile solutions for NASA and the Defense Department. For its federal contracts, the company always partners with the likes of Science Applications International Corp., GTSI Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp., according to Shell.

One project is the modernization of the Army's Mobile Subscriber Equipment and TRITAC tactical communications systems, which is the precursor to the development of the Warfighter Information Network - Tactical Program, also known as WIN-T. This harnesses wireless technology to further increase operational agility for the Army via a secure wide-area communications network.

The MSE/TRITAC modernization program has been a joint effort between the program manager at Fort Monmouth, systems integrator General Dynamics Corp. of Falls Church, Va., and Cisco Federal. The battlefield communication system itself is largely a custom design by GTE, now Verizon Communications Inc. of Dallas.

Shell considers such contracts to be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential for wireless in government. "We're seeing a lot of new wireless development things in the Department of Defense right now, like wearable computers that enable a soldier in the field to see a wide view of the battlefield in real time," he said.

He wouldn't put a price tag on the size of these opportunities, but Shell said the government mobile market soon could swell to at least 10 times its current size. And Dennis Gaughan, a senior analyst at AMR Research in Boston, thinks the wireless future could arrive in short order.

"By next year, wireless will be really big," he said. "Along with military applications, public safety and law enforcement agencies are leading the way in wireless."

Gaughan appears to have called it correctly. Motorola Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., is experiencing high demand for its wireless in-vehicle Mobile Workstation 520 and Motorola Private Data Total Access Communications, called DataTAC, mobile communications system from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has invested $21.7 million in a Motorola mobile data system. More than 1,200 of the Mobile Workstation 520 units have been installed in department vehicles to provide field access to major crime databases throughout the nation. Motorola analysts credit wireless as a major factor in the company's sales growing from $28 billion in 1996 to over $30 billion in 1999.

Kevin Plexico, vice president of Input Inc.'s Government Research Group, is another who anticipates wireless becoming firmly established in government in the immediate future.

"We see double-digit growth in government IT spending on mobile and wireless," he said. "There's not too many areas out there like that."

He cited the Navy as being on the forefront of handheld initiatives on shipboard systems. A typical aircraft carrier on active duty, for instance, has a crew of more than 5,000. If each crew member is handed one piece of paper a day for six months, a mountain of filing results.

With onboard space being at a premium, Palms have largely eliminated routine paperwork, saving significantly in terms of space, weight and costs, as well as helping to expedite inspections and communications.

Interestingly, the big players in the PC market are turning their focus onto the burgeoning mobile marketplace. "We really see government agencies shifting over the next few years from standard desktops to wireless notebooks and handheld units," said Bruce Klein, national federal manager for Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif., a hardware manufacturer with 1999 revenues of $42.4 billion.

For example, 13,000 of the company's Omnibook notebook series, designed with added power and battery life for mobile uses, were handed out by the Census Bureau to field representatives involved with the 2000 census. Further, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has purchased 2,800 Omnibooks for its field auditors.

But it is with the wireless handheld that Hewlett-Packard expects the most growth. The company's Jornado series of handheld computers is already a big seller in the commercial sector. "The major market for these devices, though, will be when government moves to wireless applications on a broad scale," said Klein.

Klein, however, believes that security is a key issue that must be fully addressed before the government handheld boom takes place. Concern has been raised, for instance, about the security of the wireless application protocol (WAP), widely adopted as a standard for wireless Web applications.

Some security experts have uncovered a potential WAP security hole at the gateway server. While the next WAP version is said to resolve this issue, firewalls must be stronger than ever when interacting with thousands of mobile users.

"Anything radio based has as big a security hole as regular broadcasting," said Tom Lyon, chief technology officer of Nokia Internet Communications Inc., Mountain View, Calif. He points out, though, that most cell phones have superior authentication to PCs.

Despite security concerns, mobile and wireless computing is steadily gaining in popularity, as seen in the steady growth of remote control connectivity solutions like PCAnywhere by Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif. PCAnywhere is already used in government by those wishing to access their work computer from home or from a laptop or handheld while on the road.

Though the application boasts several million users, its primary use remains in remote support and troubleshooting. A remote technician can log on to a PC or notebook through a modem, Internet or wireless connection and operate it as though sitting at the remote location.

"The larger the government agency, the more they can benefit from using PCAnywhere as a help desk tool," said David Scott, PCAnywhere product manager for Symantec.

Bill Bunge, for example, a supply system analyst at Naval Inventory Control Point in Mechanicsburg, Pa., uses the product for remote trouble-shooting. He talked about a help call from a site in Utah that he was unable to resolve after a 90-minute walk-through by phone. He downloaded PCAnywhere, installed it remotely at the Utah site, connected with the Utah computer over the Internet and immediately saw the problem. He could also make the necessary changes and reboot the PC remotely.

"The problem was solved in 20 or 30 minutes," said Bunge. "If I'd had to fly to the site again, it would have taken days and cost hundreds of dollars."

As results such as this become more widely known, the adoption rate of mobile and wireless devices is sure to accelerate. So does this spell the end for the desktop?

"I don't see it ever arriving at the point where we use a single device for everything," said Cisco Federal's Shell. "Instead, I see the gradual development of the most appropriate uses for the desktop, the laptop and the handheld."

AMR Research's Gaughan concurs. He strongly believes there will always be a need for a mix of wireless and wired equipment because of coverage issues.

"Universal wireless is a myth, and it will always be a myth," he said. "There will always be a place where wireless is spotty, whether in a remote area, behind hills, in a basement, and even right now in my office building in downtown Boston."

But as these coverage challenges and as security issues are successfully tackled, the benefits of wireless devices will surely bring about the widespread adoption of the technology in the near future.

Perhaps even by the next presidential election, wireless handhelds will be in place to remove the endless recounts and paper shuffling that keeps the nation waiting to find out who won.Look up mobile computing in the dictionary and it says, "the process of using a computer while traveling." (from Microsoft Computer Dictionary, Fourth Edition) For most, that means taking a laptop on the road.

Because of wireless technology and technological advancements, however, mobile computing is not what it used to be. The concept has now become just one small aspect of the blossoming mobile computing field.

The definition might be better stated as the use of a portable or remote data access, data retrieval or data entry device when direct access to a desktop PC or network workstation is either unavailable or would be an inefficient restriction of personnel activities

Mobile computing encompasses laptops, personal data assistants, handheld computers, mobile terminals, radio frequency scanners and remote access software applications. As wireless technology evolves further, look for an even wider array of devices and applications to become available.

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