RealTime IT News

Bluetooth, 802.11 Could Usurp Role of 3G

While mobile commerce on phones is a fascinating discussion, it's pretty clear now that it's going to take a while to see the widespread proliferation of it on small devices, especially in the general wide-area (WAN) wireless environment. But one thing that is happening now is the exploding market for wireless LAN (Local Area Network), both on a corporate and a consumer-services front.

A wireless LAN is essentially a "bubble" of high-speed wireless coverage that is installed in any local environment. This could include your office, coffee shops, hotels and restaurants. It can be implemented with a Bluetooth or an 802.11 network. Wireless LANs are relatively easy and inexpensive to buy and install—and they work now. Besides having connect speeds of anywhere from 384k up to 11Mbps (with 802.11b) they offer reliable, instan, always-on access to the Internet with no worries about wireless coverage. This is especially valuable considering that most wide-area wireless IP networks such as CDPD and paging networks have a very difficult time penetrating into buildings. While 2.5G and 3G are expected to improve on in-building coverage of wireless WANs, the near-term answer for most business is would appear to be wireless LAN.

Nowhere does the need for fast, reliable connections become more apparent than when you're traveling—most especially in hotels. I stay at various hotels when I travel, and, like many others, I can't stand the dial-up Internet connections—nor the heroin-like rates I pay for this narrow-band service. I feel so . . . so dirty . . . when I walk out of a hotel with a $100 bill for having used the Internet. Furthermore, it's a pain to connect to my corporate e-mail. And I hate walking into a hotel and having to wait in line for my check-in, and calling all sorts of extensions for different hotel services. I'm happy to say that wireless LAN can solve a lot of these problems for all of us.

Polyphonic information orchestration
Classwave Wireless is a company that specializes in Bluetooth and 802.11 WLAN products. The heart of Classwave's solution is its Polyphony Server. The idea is to create a single software platform that can distinguish and manage information seamlessly between the LAN and WAN on any device. Classwave is installing its solutions primarily into the hospitality industry. Using Polyphony Server to remove the complexity of creating and adapting wireless services and applications, managers can enhance the type of information and value-added services they offer to mobile workers and customers.

Recently, Classwave signed a deal with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (which owns W hotels and Sheraton among others) to enable Bluetooth solutions within the hotels. The initial solutions will consist of access points that are wirelessly connected to a central services network through Bluetooth. Hotel guests will be able to check in, as well as request room service, reservations, and other hotel services through their laptops or other Bluetooth enabled devices. Guests will also be able to connect to the Internet using the Classwave solution. The hotel and hospitality industry represents one of the best vertical markets for the near-term and long-term because it has a well-heeled, mobile audience that demands good service and is comfortable with technology. Tom Sweeney, Classwave's CEO, was kind enough to sit down and share some of the near- and long-term possibilities with us.

Sweeny's first observation was that wireless commerce is a key objective of his company's solution. Hotels should have the ability to auto-recognize guests and respond to their requests. While the initial focus would be on services, the uptake of commerce is a challenge he sees the system addressing in the mid-term. When asked about wireless advertising on Classwave's in-hotel service, Sweeny replied that it is certainly possible to do but he doesn't think that it would go over well with hotel guests. Classwave's position is that the guest should be able to dictate the flow of information, and that is what their network enables. He called these "permission based" services, and sees them as being the bulk of the transactions users perform on the Classwave service in a hotel.

The really cool stuff
Tom thinks that the real excitement comes into play when guests with Bluetooth enabled PDAs and mobile phones enter the picture. One advantage of Bluetooth is that it offers a notification capability in the wireless network environment. If you have preset your PDA to identify you to the network, you can check in automatically. You can preset room preferences (the desired temperature, for example) wake up call time, any special requests, and a host of other options automatically, which would be implemented upon your arrival. An alert would be sent to the registration desk and they could send a bellhop out to you to verify your ID and give you your room key. As you walk up to your room, the settings you desired would be implemented. You could check your e-mail anywhere in the building, and you would be notified that you have new mail. You would also be able to network with other guests and find out who is playing tennis, make reservations, find out who is available for a game, or receive real-time alerts for goods and services that you are interested in. Let me tell you, I'd stay in that hotel every time.

But consumers aren't the only ones who benefit. The enterprise does as well. Like most people in this space, Tom believes that the mobile commerce opportunity needs to achieve critical mass before it will succeed. The opportunity for Classwave in the short term lies in the time saving from paperless transactions, which translate into definable cost savings for the hotel. It also gives them a distinct customer service advantage by allowing them to offer value-added services to their mobile customers. Obviously, the excitement generated by such a solution would benefit them in the short term, as word of their customer service prowess spreads among business travelers. On top of that, day-to-day hotel supplies, maintenance, and business tasks could be automated. Imagine the housekeeping staff having PDAs that alert them to a guests needs or an emergency clean up that needs to happen. Tom indicated that this type of customer service enhancement was at the core of Classwave's business model, which is a sound model based upon providing value to the hotel in its day-to-day operations.

Embracing 802.11
But Classwave is not alone in enabling such solutions. Bluetooth itself faces stiff challenges from 802.11 wireless LAN, which enable incredibly fast wireless speeds with proven reliability. While they do not possess the notification capability that Bluetooth networks do, 802.11 networks are increasingly becoming the choice for wireless LAN solutions because of the ease of deployment and the network speed. In anticipation of this, Tom indicated that Classwave is not tied solely to Bluetooth. I believe that both technologies can and will coexist to provide the optimum user experience, and he agreed, citing the example that Bluetooth would provide notification and connectivity whenever a user was not within line-of-sight of the 802.11 hub, but also would act like a "wireless USB" cable for connecting multiple devices to the network hub. Additionally, the core software technology that Classwave makes supports 802.11 deployments as well. For a user, this means that he or she could use a wireless device in the outside world using WCDMA or some other 3G means of connecting up, and then when they walk into the hotel, the Bluetooth connection would take over and connect them to the Hotel Services network and everything contained therein.

Companies that are offering similar value propositions are MobileStar and hereUare in the 802.11 segment, and big fish like Symbol Technologies are in the game with their own 802.11 solutions. Companies in this space will have to be careful not to bite off more than they can chew, trying to be all things to all people. Classwave's focused approached to supplying the hospitality industry (and other vertical industries) positions it as an influential player in this emerging market.

In summary, wireless LANs—carrying services related to the environment in which mobile users find themselves—may very well be one of the keys to mobile commerce succeeding. Both from a user perspective as well as a realistic, deployment standpoint it offers an opportunity for transaction-based wireless data to happen in the immediate near-term—and an immediate reason for users to take advantage of it. While the ability to buy a CD using my wireless phone may be a neat idea, it's not a compelling prospect. But if I can preset my preferences and check-in information on my PDA, and select a travel profile that activates those preferences and sets them up when I walk into a hotel . . . that is a service I would use. Not only would the commerce opportunities that flow from this be interesting to end-users, but they would also help condition users to be more comfortable using their mobile device in the wide area environment. Which in turn would help open up the channel for wide area mobile commerce in the way that we all envision it happening. It is clear that wireless LAN offers a lot of interesting possibilities to mobile commerce, but it also offers a clear near-term value that can be leveraged toward making mobile commerce a reality a lot more quickly than previously thought.