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12 top mobile and wireless issues for 2008: Part 1

Wi-Fi, network security and convergence will be hot.

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Well, it's that time of year again. Reflection and forecasts come with the season, and this year is no exception.

I started assembling a "top 10" list of the key issues in mobile and wireless that will shape the industry in 2008, but I quickly discovered that the top 10 could easily be the top 50 or so. There's never been more going on in the mobile and wireless industry than there is now. I managed to condense this unwieldy number down to 12, although prioritising them is still a work in progress. Nonetheless, I present the first six this week, and the remainder in my next column. I hope you find this list to be good food for thought, and while less caloric than the rest of what we consume over the holidays, no less important.

1. Picking the right tool for the job

As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Such is the case with wireless technologies and the products that result from them. Vendors like to pitch their products as all you'll ever need. But wireless is a collection of technologies, and there is no one-size-fits-all. It's all about four key elements: availability, throughput (for data), capacity and price.

The carriers will be working hard in 2008 to improve their networks, even though in the US they face massive new expenses related to spectrum acquisition (the 700 MHz auctions start in late January) and continual technological evolution and the upgrades this entails. Look for lots of talk about 4G continuing in 2008, but don't expect critical mass here until 2011 or 2012. And don't expect to find WiMax in digital cameras - Wi-Fi works just fine there, and will for a very long time. OK, maybe ultrawideband.

2. Think network, not wireless, security

The focus on wireless security alone is over. It's time to think end-to-end. Mobility and wireless provide the motivation, but securing the air alone is inadequate. Good wired security solutions apply to wireless as well and involve encrypting sensitive data wherever it resides, strong authentication (ideally, two-factor) with both devices and data, and end-to-end VPNs.

Do we need a "mobile" or "wireless" VPN? This subject will be debated quite a bit in 2008, and the answer is - it depends. Some IT shops will insist on such a solution for local management and control. But I expect big interest in SSL VPNs in 2008, and they could become the preferred wireless option as well.

3. Wi-Fi forever

Let me be clear: Nothing replaces Wi-Fi anytime soon, and maybe never. Not WiMax. Not femtocells. Nothing. The continuing technological evolution of Wi-Fi is at once remarkable (hundreds of megabits per second in a WLAN? Really?) and eminently predictable as part of the faster/better/cheaper that defines high tech.

Expect huge interest in 802.11n in 2008, ahead of final ratification of the formal standard in mid-2009. It's here. It works. Moreover, Wi-Fi is as close as we get to a universal, global wireless standard. It works in pretty much the same way everywhere, across the enterprise, the home and public spaces. Metroscale deployments will chug along in 2008, and hot spots aren't going away either. And the folks at 802.11 have even more innovations in the works. Gigabit Wi-Fi? Yes, but not until 2010 or so.

4. Think "rate vs. range," not rate alone

I find that many make the mistake of believing wireless performance numbers that are really no more than what vendor marketing departments guarantee their products will never exceed. I generally suggest de-rating theoretical numbers by 50 percent to 66 percent just to make sure a given application will work.

But it's also important to remember that there's an inverse relationship between distance and throughput in most wireless technologies: The farther you go, the slower you go. Not considering this element is often the cause of failed wireless projects, or, at the very least, disappointed and frustrated users. But let's see if we can't get the industry to be a little more realistic in its specs in 2008. The best way to make satisfied customers is to properly set their expectations. Ever seen an ink-jet printer that can move, let alone print on, 20 pages per minute? Neither have I.

5. Convergence and unification

Picking the best tool for the job may involve picking multiple tools. With the convergence of Wi-Fi and wide-area wireless services (mobile/mobile convergence, or MMC), we'll have combined cordless/cellular phones that work everywhere and provide the best mix of service, price, performance and manageability.

Just as is the case with VoIP, VoFi (Voice-over-IP-over-Wi-Fi, or simply, Voice over Wireless) will be big in 2008. In fact, another related key theme will be unification, thinking not about the wired LAN and the wireless LAN, but rather just about designing, building and operating the LAN. We'll even begin to see commonality in wired and wireless network management systems, the last frontier of unified networks.

6. The single-device paradox continues

Finally, I see more convergence in networks but continuing divergence in devices. As Motorola learned with the once-hot Razr falling out of fashion, the tastes and preferences of consumers with respect to their mobile phones, PDAs or whatever change faster than the weather here in New England.

And even with Google's Android announcement, there's no such thing as a universal device or universal platform, and there may never be. We want it all, we want it in one device, but such is not possible or even feasible for now.

Look for an even more amazing range of devices next year, with the big question involving local applications or Web services. That's such a big topic that I'll write about it further in my next column. For now, look for increasing desktop-like qualities in mobile browsers. The iPhone kicked off this trend but is by no means the last word on it.

Next time, I'll continue the 2008 top 12 list. And regardless, I'll have a lot more to say on all of these topics as the new year unfolds.

Craig J. Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specialising in wireless networking and mobile computing. This article appeared in Computerworld.


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