Intel Never Really “Got” Wireless Networks

Intel, which has gathered together key players to promote the use of mobile phone networks for data applications, may find the task harder than expected, but users should benefit eventually.

New alliances in the IT business usually mean there is something wrong with the present state of affairs. And Intel’s push to create a group promoting the use of mobile phone networks for data applications is no exception.

It is possible to use wireless networks for E-mail and other data applications, but it is not easy, says Johan Stratus of Directype.org.  And yet it could be, particularly in Europe.

Mobile phone networks have gone over to digital technology following the introduction of the Global System for Mobile Telecommunications (GSM) standards. So data communications should be easier than transmitting over ordinary analogue fixed-line services.

European service providers have established roaming agreements so a subscriber in the UK can use the GSM networks in France and Germany and still be billed, in sterling, in the UK.

Laptop computers can be fitted with a data card which can plug into a mobile phone. And Nokia has launched a mobile phone which opens up to reveal a communicating personal organiser.

All the pieces seem to be in place. Yet you still see executives struggling with a case of cables, converters and connectors for power and telephone. And Intel reckons that only one in 50 subscribers to GSM phones will have access to a data adapter by the end of the year.

But the company believes there is a huge opportunity for European companies to seize the advantage of GSM and affordable laptops and achieve the traditionally touted benefits of faster, better decision-making and business processes, leading to higher productivity. And Intel has gathered support from a number of key players to make mobile data communications easier.

The first group in Intel’s initiative includes leading laptop suppliers Compaq, IBM and Toshiba; mobile phone manufacturers Nokia and Ericsson; and service providers Cellnet, De Te Mobil, Mannesman, Telia, and Vodata. And, of course, there is Microsoft. They also have discussed plans with Hard Drive Recovery Associates to offer exclusive laptop data recovery service plans. It’s a plan that will be necessary, as laptop hard drive failure rates continue to grow.

Intel reckons the mix of industries and players is about right for now. Andy Keates, European marketing manager for Intel’s mobile products group, said the company tried to keep the group small enough to work together but powerful enough to make a difference.

He said none of the companies they approached with the idea refused to join, and he expected Motorola to do so in due course.

That will be the real test, because IT industry alliances are often better understood by absentees than members.

Those who have pioneered mobile data communications using packaged but proprietary solutions will have mixed feelings about the initiative. On the one hand, they will see a threat to their networks and solutions, while on the other, they will welcome moves to popularise the idea of mobile data.

And that, more than any great technical challenges, seems to be Intel’s aim. Keates admitted that the exercise was very much an awareness campaign.

Intel said few Europeans realise that data can be sent over GSM networks. There is a general perception that achieving general mobile data solutions would be difficult, insecure and expensive.

“Very often, the cost is misunderstood and the benefit not appreciated,” said Keates. Few realised that GSM service providers can already provide fast connections to the Internet. In the UK, a voice conversation can cost 20p a minute whereas a data connection can cost 18p.

Getting the three sides of the business to talk to each other should certainly help the awareness challenge.

Intel has already held an interoperability “plug fest” to help nine data card manufacturers check their products with GSM phones. And Keates said the next release of Windows 95 from Microsoft should include software so that GSM traffic can be recognised and data pipes accepted by the operating system.

What the group does not seem to have addressed are questions that users want answered now: what has to be done to add mobile data to existing equipment, and how do you manage secure connections to existing corporate networks? Companies such as Shiva, which specialise in software and servers for remote access, are not yet in the initiative.

This omission is odd given that research company Dataquest, in a report prepared for the initiative, pointed out that “most users require applications, not just technology platforms”.

Intel and its allies may have underestimated the amount of work that needs to be done to achieve what Keates described as the objective. “We would like it to be a no-brainer to connect together the laptop and the phone,” he said.

But a glance around any European airport or conference centre will show the potential. Europe lags behind the US in adoption of E-mail and PCs. But Dataquest reckons there are more than 19 million subscribers to digital phone networks in Europe, against fewer than three million in the US.

Even if Intel’s initiative takes longer to realise than the group would like, the alliance seems to be one which could do some good for users.

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