Technology

This Utility Doesn't Need Wires


Four years ago, as he watched the 2.5 million-square-foot Time Warner Center being built in Manhattan, David Heckaman, its director of technology, decided to make the new complex as high-tech as they come. So, he introduced into the construction project a curious creature called a wireless utility. With cables hanging from its sides and antennas that looked like eyes, it was embedded right into the towers' walls, just like electrical wiring or water pipes.

Finished last November, the wireless utility allows cell phones to work anywhere in the building, provides wireless Internet access throughout the complex, and enables two-way radio communications for employees. The crown jewel of Heckaman's tech efforts, it operates exactly like a utility -- wireless bandwidth can be turned on and off, just like a water faucet.

NICE SWITCH. It goes to show that "utility computing" is about more than making a bunch of server computers work together. Really, it's about letting people get access to their data whenever they need it and however they want to pay for it. "People immediately think of huge networks of servers" when they think of utility computing, says Jasmine Noel, an analyst at info-tech consultancy Ptak, Noel & Associates in New York.

But Noel adds that as the world loses its wires, "the way people use [IT] resources changes." They'll want access it without using a wire connection, and they'll want to pay for it as they go.

That will be a nice switch from today's mobile computing gridlock. For the 60 million Americans who work outside their office for at least 20% of the time, accessing computer networks means navigating through a bunch of confusing menus -- and paying big bucks for the privilege of watching their computers slowly download information. That's probably why no more than 2 million of those mobile workers use wireless connections for high-speed access to the Web, estimates Tole Hart, an analyst at market research firm Gartner. It's just too expensive.

KICKING INTO HIGH. That's about to change. Wireless service providers like Verizon Wireless are rolling out faster networks, such as so-called EVDO (for evolution data optimized), which could deliver wireless download speeds as fast as digital subscriber lines (DSL) now commonly used in homes. Alternative wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi, are becoming commonplace. Even cellular phone and personal digital assistant (PDAs) interfaces are making huge strides, as these devices get as much brainpower as PCs had not long ago. The bottom line: The wireless world is about to kick into high gear.

So, naturally, utility computing is also going wireless. Tech managers at Time Warner's (TWX) new Manhattan headquarters, which used wireless gear from startup InnerWireless, see it as something akin to how you get electricity or water. Instead of paying a constant usage fee -- no matter how little or much you use -- wireless utilities can provide mobile workers the bandwidth they need when they need it, whether it be to tap a corporate database of do a videoconference.

The market for this kind of technology is so new you can't even measure it, says Warren Wilson, an analyst at tech research firm Summit Strategies in Boston. "But it's going to be a very significant market in four or five years," he says.

"MAJOR OPPORTUNITY." No doubt, this nascent business is percolating. Sales at InnerWireless, a private company based in Richardson, Tex., grew 1,400% over the last year and should double or triple in 2005, according to CEO Ed Cantwell. Telecom giant SBC Communications (SBC), which installs and manages wireless networks for big clients, expects to double its wireless network sales next year, says Brian Buffington, its executive director for managed services. "We view this as a major business opportunity," says Buffington. SBC is working on an on-demand subscription service that would allow users to forward calls between regular cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

Traditional tech companies are also plugging away. IBM (IBM) is working on a wireless instant messaging service. Sold on an on-demand basis through telecom carriers but hosted on IBM servers, the service will allow users of different IM systems to message each other with the security of those messages guaranteed.

Software makers agile enough to jump on the wireless bandwagon appear to be the big winners in all this jostling. On Nov. 2, Salesforce.com (CRM), a San Francisco company that sells customer-management software as a service over the Internet, introduced new capabilities that allow clients to build their wireless-tailored software to run with Salesforce's own Internet service. "Companies are ready for wireless," says Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

CLOSER THAN YOU THINK. Despite all the enthusiasm, wireless utilitiy computing will take time. "We don't believe the technology is nearly mature enough," says Frank Gillett, an analyst at tech consultants Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. Indeed, Time Warner Center's Heckaman still uses a traditional wire-based network for emergency service, just in case.

But a world of wireless computing utilities is closer than you think. And if all goes well, it will be as easy to use as a light switch. By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.


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