Palms gain the upper hand.

There remains tremendous confusion about the future role of wireless delivery of financial services. Online trading via mobile devices is widely viewed as inevitable, despite significant technological, operational and cultural barriers.

With the PC market in the doldrums, it is not surprising that few businesses are focusing on PCs. The latest desktop PCs may be brimming with specification; however, it is the handheld, wireless models that are taking centre stage.

But wireless technology presents decision-makers at financial service providers with a complex new set of technology challenges, including evolving infrastructure, new enterprise architecture demands and the proliferation of wireless devices and applications.

Corporate spending on wireless technology is set to hit #20bn in the next five years. According to research group Ovum, enterprise IT departments will spend up to #8bn on wireless software applications and mobile services, while the cost of network services and bandwidth could reach an additional #13bn.

IBM chief executive Lou Gerstner in June predicted two billion wireless web access devices would be in use within two years, compared with only 700 million PCs, and the company has put its money where its mouth is.

Among IBM’s wireless offerings are new models in its ThinkPad and WorkPad ranges, including the company’s first handheld model with a colour display.

‘The business community’s demands will test the operators to the limit,’ says Neil Ward Dutton, research director at Ovum. ‘The environments in which we access data and the devices that we use to do it are both changing dramatically.’

Clearly, manufacturers and distributors are trying to persuade businesses to opt for their wireless handheld offering, with marketing evangelism that approaches their consumer campaigns. Like consumers, businesses are being pushed towards client devices in a bid to change computer usage.

There have been some bizarre concepts touted along the way, including the internet-enabled fridge freezer and toaster, but there are less esoteric options such as digital television set-top boxes and Wap phones.

The deficiency of many of these devices, Wap phones in particular, leaves users with a distrust of marketing hype. Wap – realistically little more than a transitional technology – is being sold as the solution to accessing the internet on the move. But few websites cater for Wap phones, and their tiny screen is not considered practical for the medium.

For corporate users, the product offering is less frivolous. There has been significant growth in sales of personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as palms, visors and pocket PCs, but this has been spurred on by end-users who have matched them to a genuine business need.

The reason for this is, simply, that users are now comfortable with the palm-sized unit for accessing data and resources in the workplace.

Coupled with that, software and hardware development now mean that most of these devices can connect seamlessly with back-office systems and data, while terminal services products can link the power of your Windows 9x or NT desktop via the internet or your local area network and with your embedded device.

A prime example of the growth of palms in the workplace is Compaq’s iPaq, which has already shipped a million. At the recent Tech Ed Europe developer conference in Barcelona, Compaq effectively demonstrated how something so small can be used productively in a work environment. By attaching a wireless Ethernet card to the units and installing a few applications, some 6,000 people were buzzing around the large Mont Juic 2 conference centre frantically emailing, checking conference schedules and updates, as well as trying interactive services, such as an online auction. The latter, while little more than a gimmick, did demonstrate the online commercial potential for a wireless palm-sized computer.

All this was done through either a dedicated application or a web browser.

After years of promises, Compaq is finally evolving a palm computer into a multi-function terminal client, capable of providing the front-end to more than just websites.

Not only does the browser open the door to remote access, but also it greatly simplifies the ability to access this data on a range of devices – great and small. Microsoft is now getting so serious about this, it is developing its browser for mobile phones and embedded devices.

While these small devices seem to have flopped in the consumer space over the past few years, they have not only succeeded in the workplace, but are also actually earning their keep. With that in mind, isn’t it time that user organisations started taking these things seriously, instead of simply tolerating them on the periphery of their IT infrastructure?

‘We’ve been expecting the wireless enterprise market to arrive for eight years,’ says Ward Dutton. ‘But suppliers have different approaches to standards, and there is little strategic collaboration. That’s why it has taken so long.’

To take advantage of the available technology, organisations should look for software suppliers and network operators that are collaborating to provide real business applications.

UK companies are starting to accept wireless technology as a mainstream element of IT strategy, says Steve Unker, chief executive of wireless consultancy Brainstorm.

‘The fact that Compaq is doing adverts about this stuff shows that it is real and it’s commonplace. Whatever the problems surrounding early mobile deployment, the need for mobile business is not in doubt.’

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