What's Going to Be the Next Unwired Storm?
What's Going to Be the Next Unwired Storm?
By: Jeremy Geelan
Dec. 28, 2000 05:13 PM
If a week is a long time in politics, imagine how long five years is, in Internet time. It's a lifetime.
It's easy to demonstrate. All you have to do is think back just six short years, to 1995. In 1995 the Internet wasn't yet the business, consumer, and social tool it has now become. PDAs - remember Apple's Newton? - were unsatisfactory, and cellular phones (why does this seem almost funny now, with 20/20 hindsight?) were a luxury. In 1995 the telcos were still viewing long distance as a growth business for them. Geography hadn't yet ended, and Internet telephony wasn't yet a phrase, let alone a technical reality. Shocking? Well, let me tell you...we ain't seen nothing yet. Because the explosion of the wireless paradigm in 2000-2001 is 1995 all over again. No one is going to believe, five years from now (and maybe even five months from now), that most cellular telephones and laptops still talked to each other early in 2001 only via infrared; no one is going to believe that people were still getting lost in their automobiles just because they were driving in unfamiliar territory; no one is going to believe that you couldn't send and receive e-mail on every commercial airplane while flying at 30,000 feet; no one is going to believe that folks still joined the various speakers of their stereo sound system to the amplifier with...wires.
But if the wirefree world is already with us, all around us, taking furious shape, what exactly is that shape, seen through the lens of business, technology, and society? The WFW is geopolitically neutral, that's the first thing. Whereas the wireline world has favored countries with capital-intensive infrastructures, the WFW has permitted a country like, say, Bulgaria to pole-vault into the twenty-first century and clear the selfsame bar that took wireline America some 50 years to surmount. Forget "information rich" and "information poor" - with wireless technologies there's a real opportunity for business and technology to bridge the gap between the two and make some honest money at the same time. Which is entirely appropriate, for business is the major change agent of modern times. The late Willis Harman, then president of the World Business Academy, put it very well in his astonishingly prescient book Global Mind Change, written in faraway 1990. "Leaders in world business are the first true planetary citizens. They have worldwide capability and responsibility; their domains transcend national boundaries. Their decisions affect not just economies, but societies; not just the direct concerns of business, but world problems of poverty, environment, and education." The wirefree world is inclusive rather than exclusive. When the authorities in the People's Republic of China were striving in 1999 and 2000 to regulate and control what they saw as the choke points of free speech, the wireline ISPs, along came wireless communication to thwart their authoritarian intentions. What use are regulations and controls in an unwired world where a factory worker in Shanghai can get the same connection to the Yahoo! search engine that you and I can get in New York or London? So the WFW is also a freer world. Period.
The WFW is also, put very simply, cheaper. Huge economies of scale become possible once everyone is going to use a technology. Six billion cellular telephones may not be a good idea from a social, let alone a medical, point of view (in regard to the latter, see Peter Roxburgh's disturbing article elsewhere in this issue, "The Wireless Emperor Has No Clothes"); but from an economic point of view it is actually becoming feasible. Phones may soon be as commoditized as pencils. But what else? Now that telephones are ubiquitous, even in the Sahara Desert where they've catapulted even the traditionalist Tuareg tribesmen into the present, what's going to be the next unwired crop? The first place to look will be on our roads. Forget drivers talking on their cellulars. As far as technology and cars are concerned, we've hardly begun to see the synergies. The futurist Amory Lovins of the world-renowned Rocky Mountain Institute in Snomass, Colorado, once explained to me how we needed to realize (this was again in that fateful watershed year, 1995) that the car of the future was "much more likely to resemble a PC with wheels attached" - as he explained it - "than an automobile with a PC on board." Rather than General Motors, he said, we should be looking to Hewlett Packard for the cars of 2020. And, of course, he is going to be proven right. Who needs to worry anymore about whether the transmission is manual or automatic, whether the engine is turbo-assisted or not, or whether there's a sunroof or a rack for your skis? What will matter in the future is whether the car is Internet-enabled, whether it has Bluetooth features such as a fuel tank that "talks" to the nearest available gas station when it's running low and brings to the driver's attention the price and location of the cheapest refill of the tank. What will matter is whether the car has an e-mail address. (There's a division within Nokia charged with exactly this, ensuring that in the WFW every automobile on earth has an e-mail address.) In the meantime, in Japan, researchers are already working on the use of traffic lights as "information points" for Internet cars, allowing the collection of files too large to be distributed easily by existing cellular networks - such as MP3 music files, for example. Another unwired crop of applications and appliances will be found in the kitchen, where - again, as with the automobile world - you can't help thinking that soon we're all going to feel like Rip Van Winkle, waking up one day to find we've been asleep for 20 years. How else to describe a kitchen in which one's fridge door is the center of wireless applications not just for the kitchen but for the entire home? Bluetooth's corporate progenitor, Ericsson, has already teamed up with Electrolux to develop the "Screen Fridge" with a built-in touch screen in the door and a kitchen-safe Bluetooth transceiver above the screen. From here you can wirelessly control, for example, your washing machine or your oven - all that's needed is an "always-on" (say, ADSL) Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line link. In Copenhagen an experiment is even in progress in which, using a WAP telephone, families are road testing a fridge that they can call up...to find out what's in it!
Planes, cars, kitchens...where else will wireless wreak its special mix of consumer benefits and commercial havoc? Where else will the old wireline paradigm give way to the new wireless one? Well, how about schools? Elsewhere in this issue Drexel University is profiled as being among the first movers in the shift toward the totally unwired campus. But don't think for a moment that it's only higher education that's casting off the chains of the hardwired world. Like Bulgaria, the elementary school can now also pole-vault into the future - and is already doing so. In the state of Connecticut there are already a number of completely unwired elementary schools, in which kids as young as 7 or 8 can move from classroom to library to homeroom without ever needing to wait for a wire link, all the while harvesting data and images for their PowerPoint presentation to the class next day on "My Vacation in Aruba."
And what about hospitals? The wireless health sector is going to be one of the fastest-growing areas of all. It's going to be phenomenal. Wireless health care will unite patients, doctors, and insurers online. Visions vary from "an Internet portal at every bed" (www.HealthCite.com) to "online chronic condition management" (www.savvyHealth.com), but one thing is clear: health care delivered by a wireless platform is as inevitable as, say, homeworking via the Net. Once there's a technology that offers instant "anywhere, anytime" benefits to doctors and users alike, take-up is fast and furious. And when you consider that there are already more than 15,000 medical Web sites, the potential constituency of wireless healthcare users in the near, let alone the far, future must be phenomenally big.
Wireless credit, wireless gaming, wireless boating and air travel, wireless research, wireless video, wireless music, wireless portals, wireless finance, wireless ASPs...there really will be no end to it, and there doesn't need to be.Wireless technologies represent the true killer applicationof the Internet - not so much an information superhighway after all but a compass, a tool for navigating the road not of information but of life itself, an aid in many more ways than merely through providing readier access to data. Rather than just information, wireless brings orientation - and you simply can't have too much orientation, any more than you can be too thin or have too much bandwidth.
With the present worldwide rollout of "always-on" connectivity via ADSL and the eventual future bandwidth promised to us via 3G networks, the wireless boom will be a long one. And as Peter Schwartz, founder of the Global Business Network, a consulting firm and think tank, wrote over two decades ago in his book The Long Boom - coauthored with Peter Leyden, former managing editor of Wired magazine, and Joel Hyatt, a teacher of entrepreneurship at Stanford -there are 10 guiding principles that can usefully be applied at any time of startling change such as wireless is bringing about and will assuredly go on fomenting at a giddy pace: "Go global, open up, let go, grow more, be adaptable, keep learning, value innovation, be inclusive, stay confident, and get connected." Wirelessly, of course. Personally, if forced to choose between being ageless and being wireless, I'd pick wireless. I'd rather be wireless than flawless, I'd rather be wireless than relentless, I'd rather be wireless than ruthless, blameless, or worriless. It constitutes a model case of what the management literature likes to term a strategic technology.
The founder of the Java Lobby, Rick Ross, found me writing by hand the news release that announced the imminent publication of this magazine at one of SYS-CON Media's trade shows, held in New York City last year. "That's cool," he said, "you're writing it by hand." I held up my pen: "Wireless technology," I said, proudly. Rick agreed. The best technologies are those that fade into the background so that we don't think of them as technology. That's wireless, in a nutshell. For all that it is a scythe, harvesting crop after crop of old-paradigm activities, it is an invisible scythe. What's going to be the next unwired crop? Whatever it is, my bet is that you'll hardly even notice.
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