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Why Not Let Wireless Disrupt Our Lives?

Why Not Let Wireless Disrupt Our Lives?

The one reassuring thing about the future, it has always seemed to me, is that - whether we like it or not - we are all headed there together.

Why, then, do phases seem to recur during which folks, particularly in the technology space, have such wildly divergent views of what that future will be like? Take right now, for example. No one in the entire wireless world seems to agree with anyone else about Wi-Fi.

According to some, Wi-Fi is unquestionably the most disruptive technology we've seen since the arrival of the Internet itself. According to others it's a wholly incremental phenomenon, just another offering that will in due course find its place alongside everything else in the communications stack.

How then should WBT establish for its readers where the reality lies? What better way than to take part in a carefully planned "Why-Fi?" debate at the Vortex 2003 technology conference last month, in which John Patrick, chairman of the industry-supported Global Internet Project and former vice president of Internet Technology at IBM until he "retired" at the end of 2001, went head to head with the president of Infonautics Consulting, Inc. - and popular technology columnist - Peter A. Bernstein.

It was a fascinating hour. Bernstein is an internationally recognized authority on telecommunications, information technologies, and wireless communications who has served as strategic advisor to many of the largest companies in this industry, and is a prominent author, editor, and industry spokesman. (His best work, "The Eighth Layer," is an engaging essay on the acceleration of technological inventiveness in a world where there is no longer a monopoly on innovation, and on how - as we inexorably move more and more of our lives online - value will be increasingly created, and winners and losers determined, at the intersection of the physical and virtual worlds, the eponymous "Eighth Layer.")

Bernstein's contention at Vortex 2003 was that Wi-Fi is not disruptive, that indeed the IT world should banish the terms disrupt and disruptive to wherever on earth they were before Clayton M. Christensen so famously, in his bestselling 1997 book, The Innovator's Dilemma, put them on the business/technology map.

Wi-Fi is merely an enabler, Bernstein declared, to an audience of the great and the good from the networking and Internet technology worlds. Access and bandwidth are commodities nowadays, and according to Bernstein value creation is therefore not about access, not about always-on. "The marriage of continuous communication with computing is interesting," he added, "but it is an incremental advancement, not profound."

John Patrick took issue with this whole approach. "It is disruptive," he retorted, "It's unregulated spectrum. There is no service provider in the middle - no Sprint, no Nextel - with Wi-Fi, one 802.11-compliant platform can 'talk' with another, but who's the service provider? There isn't one!"

The thing about Wi-Fi, Patrick continued, is that right now most people aren't actually familiar with it. "We're at the very beginning," he said. "Broadband is an important component, but it's not the speed [that makes it disruptive]...it's that you can be connected at all!"

Instant messaging, for example, introduces a real-time "game-changer" to name but one application. But it doesn't, Patrick continued, end there: a multilingual version of IM already exists that is similar to IM, "except that your buddy list self-compiles with folks within 300 feet of you...so you can say 'Does anyone here speak English?' and someone will in all likelihood stand up and come right over and help you."

"One-to-many" messaging amounts to a change in social behavior, Patrick contended. "It is as important as the Web," he said, noting wryly that the list of reasons cited by people who dismiss it as incremental, or just a passing fad, is "the same list that the doubting CIOs used when they said that the Web wasn't going to happen."

The future, in other words, is mighty difficult to second-guess. Consult five experts and you get ten opinions, whether you listen to experts like those who were available in abundance at this year's Vortex in Laguna Niguel, California, or prefer your insights to come from those who will be assembling on the east coast at this month's colossal CeBIT America conference and expo, where the Enterprise Wireless Forum will undoubtedly be one of the best-attended events of the show, bringing together - in the words of its organizers - "some of the most forward-thinking visionaries in the wireless industry to help discover specific trends that will determine the future of wireless and its impact upon the enterprise."

By some mistake, probably, they've invited me to speak. So if you're not doing anything on June 20, and find yourself in New York City, why not swing by the Jacob K. Javits Center and come enjoy? The title of my presentation, which follows the keynote, is (what else?) "Truly, Madly, Deeply Wireless - Why 2003 Is the Year of the Tipping Point in Wireless."

Be there or be square. And don't forget to come say hi afterwards!

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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