Why wireless tech is frustrating as hell for IT

From Wi-Fi to smartphones, wireless technology has become ubiquitous in businesses and is growing more vital every day. But it also can be frustrating as hell for IT groups.

How substantial is the anxiety that wireless technology creates for IT? “HUGE,” in all caps, wrote Brad Wright, vice president of global communications technology at Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., in an e-mail.

That’s because wireless environments are difficult to support, especially setups like the one at Jacobs, which has 15,000 wireless users in 400 locations, he said. Also, wireless technology is evolving and as it does so, users are growing increasingly demanding and tend to get frustrated by wireless policies and new programs, he added.

Over the next decade, the complexity will only get worse, even for well-prepared companies, analysts said, and a premium will be placed on CIOs and IT organizations that recognize that mobility needs to be at the top of the IT agenda.

Given the wireless mega-trend and associated growing pains, it’s fair to ask how midsize and large IT shops are managing wireless and what they’re doing to prepare for the evolution of wireless over the coming decade. For example, are companies creating a new position of chief mobility officer, or appointing someone with a title similar to Wright’s to oversee all the moving parts? Are IT shops integrating wireless into their technology processes and systems?

Computerworld contacted 10 IT directors at universities and businesses as well as various industry analysts and wireless vendors to ask them how prepared IT shops are to face the next wireless decade. Not surprisingly, IT managers brag that they are on top of things, pretty much. However, some confessed that they feel anxious about forthcoming technologies, such as video over wireless and voice over Wi-Fi, or that they’re concerned about their ability to control the deluge of smartphone models and applications and provide sufficient security for all of them.

Small and midsize businesses, and even some large ones, aren’t “fully aware of how several of these coming wireless services might impact them from a cost and support perspective,” Wright said. “Impacts of video over wireless, voice over Wi-Fi and others are hard to gauge at present, and this will become increasingly difficult as users invent new reasons for such technologies to be used for work or play.”

Concerns over rapid change

Controlling wireless telecommunications expenses, for example, has “become a major worry,” said an IT manager at a large New York cultural institution, who asked not to be named.

Russ Hester, chief technology officer at the Francis Tuttle Technology Center, an educational institution in Oklahoma City, said the biggest concern he faces is developing a “sound security approach to make more core services available to wireless devices.” Hester said he already sees smartphones taking up the bulk of Wi-Fi network usage, and he pointed out that Francis Tuttle is rolling out video-over-wireless capacity for a new culinary school.

Business IT leaders should take note: Schools and universities might well be the proving ground for future wireless applications and services. At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., for example, an Aruba Networks 802.11n wireless LAN is helping IT managers distribute 17 channels of IP-based television to dorm rooms. The cost is far lower than what it would cost to offer TV via coaxial cable, or even deliver TV via Ethernet, said Jimmy Graham, manager of network services at Liberty.

“IPTV is working out great,” Graham said. “Video is kind of the future. We expect more video chat, but also all the content you get from Hulu and YouTube.”

“But it’s hard to keep ahead” of wireless needs, added Bruce Osborne, network engineer at Liberty University.

Liberty might be ahead of the mobility game, for now, analysts said. “In truth, few companies truly understand the ramifications of the future wireless transformations coming,” said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC. Handling support for a diverse collection of consumer smartphones, such as the iPhone and Android-based devices, is “just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Technologies such as video streaming, real-time collaboration and cloud-based systems accessed from mobile devices “will all have a profound effect on corporate networks, security and management of devices and users,” Gold added. “Few companies have a long-term strategic vision for mobility, let alone a strategic plan.”

A blurring of handheld form factors

Change is coming quickly in the mobile industry. One indicator is the variety of new devices introduced each quarter, which makes it difficult to plan two years ahead, let alone 10 years. The next trend-setting iPhone is supposed to include a forward-facing video camera for video chat, for example, while Apple Inc.’s iPad tablet is expected to spawn a slew of imitators on a variety of operating systems.

The expected changes mean that companies will need to hire more IT workers who are familiar with mobile platforms and applications, and that universities need to train engineers for such work.

“We’re due for massive change [in enterprise mobility] in the next 10 years,” said Jim Hemmer, CEO of Antenna Software, a Jersey City, N.J.-based company that builds and hosts enterprise mobile applications for businesses.

Hemmer expects a blurring of handheld form factors over the next two years. “We’ll see the mobile handset augmented by some sort of iPad-like device, and the devices will be smaller than iPads but bigger than BlackBerries, with touch screens and maybe a slip-out keyboard. They will cost $300 to $500 and will completely replace the laptop at several times that much.”

Hemmer also sees a sweeping move toward greater worker mobility in a few years.

“It will be a worker with a phone on the hip, not working in an office and without a need for a desk phone. The device will be graphical, allowing workers to read files and modify them. It will totally change business,” he said.

One Antenna customer, John Rinaldi of ThyssenKrupp Elevator, hopes to out-guess the coming demands imposed by wireless mobility. “With wireless, all of your traditional IT concerns are multiplied across the number of wireless devices, tools, security, help desk and support, so matters are escalated tenfold,” he said.

What about a chief mobility officer?

Rinaldi, who is system architect for service management and mobility at ThyssenKrupp, works on innovations for 15,000 workers and sees the need for companies to have corporate chief mobility officers or positions like his.

“There needs to be more focus on what is the next best thing in wireless, from a productivity standpoint,” he said. “There’s a need for a knowledge position that has the forward-thinking to manage change, whether it’s a CMO or a group. ”

IT leaders and analysts interviewed for this article are divided as to whether organizations need chief mobility officers.

“I don’t think organizations want to add more management layers like a CMO [in these] economic times, but mobility needs to be an adjective on every IT noun today,” said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. “Every part of the IT infrastructure team has to be aware of mobile, just like they have to aware of things like green technology.”

Hemmer said that the most striking change coming with wireless technology in the enterprise may be the move toward building consumer-facing mobile applications that give wireless customers the ability to buy a company’s products and services or make financial transactions via smartphones and other devices.

Traditionally, corporations have deployed wireless applications to cut costs and improve productivity for sales and field service workers. Now, enterprises are expected to shift to writing business-to-consumer applications to bring in top-line revenues, Hemmer said. “Suddenly the CEO is going to be directly involved saying, ‘This is our brand’ on a mobile consumer-facing application.”

Since the economy is expected to grow slowly for some time, Dulaney said corporations will work steadily to gradually adapt their wireless infrastructures as more Wi-Fi equipment is installed, as more 3G and 4G networks are built out by carriers and as smartphones proliferate.

“The challenge now is in shaping the networks, the security and the software to enable a common set of capabilities,” Dulaney said. “Networks are becoming borderless, but their capabilities are not homogeneous and the applications are not forgiving of the transitions. That is where the work is. But, bottom line, mobility in enterprises is being adapted in a gradual way due to economics.”

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld.

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