Technology

How Wi-Fi Can Remake the Workplace


At most companies these days, the decision to implement a new technology is made only after plenty of agonizing, numbers-crunching, and grilling of the info-tech staff by the chief executive. But Doug Michels, CEO of software company Tarantella (TTLA), didn't spend much time thinking about the decision to add a broadband wireless network to his Santa Cruz (Calif.) corporate headquarters about a year ago. That's mainly because Wi-Fi (the industry name for wireless networking technology that uses the popular 802.11 standard) is so cheap and easy to install.

"It's such an inexpensive technology that we didn't have to make an all-or-nothing decision," Michels says, adding that it cost only about $200 to test. "Some engineers ordered a Wi-Fi base station and plugged it into a hub, and we were up." Formerly known as Santa Cruz Operation, Tarantella sold its core server software business in early 2001 and is now essentially a startup, developing Internet infrastructure software that allows users secure remote access to applications on their corporate servers.

After seeing how fast the wireless network worked and how much flexibility it gave employees, Michels decided to outfit the whole building at a cost of roughly $3,000, adding three more base stations that extended the wireless network to conference rooms, the cafeteria, and an outdoor deck. He also added network cards for about 20 laptops, and within a year all 140 employees should have wireless access for their laptops, says Michels. Part of the initial appeal of the wireless setup was how much easier it would be for Tarantella's many telecommuters to hook into the network from temporary workspaces when they're in the office.

UNCHAINED WORKERS. Upon reflection, Michels says wireless broadband has had a couple of drawbacks, though they seem fairly slight. He advises other businesses not to add Wi-Fi without thinking through its implications for network security. And he notes that at times during meetings, "You end up with a lot of people who check e-mail or use the Internet when they should be paying attention. It's a cultural thing. People have to learn when it's appropriate and when it isn't."

Even so, having Internet access on the job without being tied to a desk is "definitely a plus," says Michels. Despite the occasional distractions, it has made meetings run smoother and employees more productive, with everyone able to use laptops to look up a quick fact or retrieve a piece of data. "People don't have to constantly get up and run back to their desks," says Michels.

Turning the headquarters staff into a mobile workforce boosts productivity in other ways. For a change of scenery or to find a quiet spot to work out a thorny problem, employees often retreat to a conference room or the outdoor deck. "We have offices with a lot of open space, and it can get noisy and distracting," says Michels. Now, the wireless network lets workers enjoy the sunshine and still stay connected. "It just gives them that much more flexibility," he adds. Those who don't mind a commotion bring their laptops to the cafeteria to work during lunch.

TAKING IT HOME. Steve Taylor, a software architect at the company, has become a major Wi-Fi advocate. "I work in whatever space feels most comfortable at the time," he says, including home. Like many people at the company -- including Michels -- Taylor added a Wi-Fi network at home after using it at work. Now, he starts his workday at his dining table with a cup of coffee.

It has surprised Michels that some people choose to work on the wireless LAN from their laptops all day, even though the company's wired network is more robust and faster. Taylor, who uses the wireless network to test applications he has designed for handheld computers, says his favorite routine is to sign on with his Siemens SIMpad, which is easy to carry and useful for presentations and sharing information with colleagues. "The freedom it gives you is pretty overwhelming," he says.

Security concerns remain the biggest drawback, Michels says. Tarantella uses an encryption protocol known as WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy), but hackers can breach it with a little effort. "We do worry about it, but we've got pretty good security around critical applications," he says. "Even getting onto our network wouldn't get most people very far."

WHY BE WIRED? He also doesn't have too much worry about drive-by hackers, since his building isn't in a downtown area and anyone who drove up and jumped on the network using a Wi-Fi connection -- as is possible -- would attract suspicion pretty quickly.

Michels says the Wi-Fi network works well enough that it could handle all the networking needs of many businesses, making a wired network unnecessary. For companies in buildings that aren't already wired (most new buildings are), that would save the cost and hassle of running wires. Just be aware, he adds, that applications requiring a lot of bandwidth can overload a wireless network. For instance, he says Internet telephony won't work.

Overall, he says, Wi-Fi's weaknesses are few. In fact, he has grown so accustomed to having Wi-Fi access that on a recent business trip he was shocked when connections weren't available in every office and airport he visited. Many of his customers and most of his techie friends have become devoted Wi-Fi users. That's a major reason he outfitted his home: so visitors can go online from the guest rooms. For his customers, employees, and for himself, says Michels, "one computer plugged into a wall isn't acceptable anymore." By Amey Stone in New York


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