Flash in the PAN

The world gets smaller every day. Just consider the personal-area network (PAN). Through cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), e-mail pagers and laptop computers, soon we’ll all be able to plug into IT infrastructures wherever, whenever we want.

Or so say the entrail-readers at Gartner Inc. In a recent press brief, the IT think-tank predicts widespread use of mobile technologies over the next few years. Rapid adoption will put even more stress on IT planners and their limited resources, as well as staff. By 2003, Gartner predicts that mobile workers will spend 20 minutes a day just synchronizing their data from different devices.

For its part, Meta Group Inc. predicts that by 2003, nearly 20 per cent of business-to-business transactions will be mobile or wireless. For business-to-consumer transactions, wireless will account for 25 per cent.

As one solution, Gartner calls on IT managers to consider limiting support to certain devices, standardize synchro tools and use cross-platform applications. At first glance, it’s sound advice, but there’s something missing here: users.

As companies cut the wires connecting employees to their voice and data networks, staff could find themselves further enmeshed in a web of differing (and conflicting) devices and applications, not to mention stuck with more grunt work.

Is it reasonable to place further demands on workers, not only to respond to round-the-clock messages, but also to take more time out to tinker with their data and devices? This is what unified messaging promised to resolve — and when was the last time you checked for a fax through voice mail?

Convergence is much more than a technical or business issue. As we’ve seen with VCRs and remote control wands, there are limits to what we can put up with as users. Dumping more options into the mix — even if it’s a well-though-out dump — has to make more than business sense. It’s got to take into account how people work, and how that work can be helped, not hindered, by technology.

There are some solid examples of increasingly popular PAN devices, albeit on the consumer side. Just look at text messaging on cell phones, or all those nifty doo-dads you can stick on a Handspring Visor.

But consumers can decide when and how to use these toys. Employees have to squeeze them into their workloads as determined by management.

Flexible, mobile-friendly IT infrastructure could make it easier for staff to do their jobs, be it updating files while away from the office or responding to queries while travelling. But beyond finding a technological fix, we need a lot more discussion on how these new gadgets will fit into our day-to-day work activities.

Remember how networks and laser printers were supposed to herald the rise of the paperless office? Instead, the ease with which we can send, access and print information means we’re killing even more trees than ever.

Let’s not make a similar mistake with mobile IT. Let’s make sure that by cutting the leash, we don’t strangle ourselves through even tighter links to the workplace.

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