April 21, 2009

Blast From The Past -- 1994 and Wireless

Imagine downloading your calendar down to your "pager". That was high tech back in 1994. Fifteen years ago. And the dangerous prediction that one day email will be a must-have tool (like answering machines...). Thank goodness for regular libraries...

COPYRIGHT 1994 Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

Jan. 27--No sooner was the interstate freeway system launched in the 1950s than the golden age of air travel came into full swing. It's happening all over again with the Information Highway. Just as the country's computers and phones are rapidly converging into a supernetwork, millions of people are keeping in touch without wires.

Wireless isn't just for talking anymore, or for sending phone numbers to pagers, or for workers in trucks. Data transmission to and from mobile workers by wireless, a process given an enormous boost by federal development grants to law enforcement agencies in the 1970s, is exploding.

Consider: Eden Prairie-based National Computer Systems' 182 field service workers across the country can send and receive brief written messages from each other and their dispatch center through hand-held radio modems attached to palmtop computers, even when they're indoors on a service call. They don't have to hunt for a telephone or walk back to their truck to be in touch. Still to come: transmission of more elaborate data, such as accounts receivable and parts lists, on standard screens.

The Minnesota Vikings were able to display - and sell - more big-ticket items such as leather jackets at the Metrodome last season because new modems made it possible to verify credit card balances by wireless, in 6 to 8 seconds. That allowed the team to set up sales kiosks throughout the stadium instead of only near electrical outlets, said spokesman Brian Bird. Fast- food chains are testing the concept.

Minnegasco uses what it calls a "second-generation" mobile data system to transmit maps of underground lines to utility crews in the field. It's been sending written data to trucks since the late 1980s.

Cellular phones, notoriously unreliable as data transmitters, are improving through a new technology called "CDPD" that keeps written messages intact, ungarbled and confidential in transmitted bursts called packets.

"You can't carry as much freight in the air as on the ground, but we sure can handle the priority freight (on wireless)," said Larry Sanders, founder of Edina-based Racotek Inc., expanding on the highway/airway metaphor. Racotek, which raised $28 million last month in an initial public offering, makes mobile network operating-system software that works on a variety of systems that transmit data via radio networks.

"Even pagers are getting smarter," said Craig Keefner of CCT Inc. of Minneapolis, a wireless consultant. "I can send a message on my E-mail system directly to a pager. People can download their phone messages into a pager or even their calendars into pagers."

Partisans of pagers, mobile computers and cellular networks are all racing toward what Sanders calls the "ultimate dream": information anywhere, any time. In the final analysis, users won't care how it's delivered, anymore than they care which long-distance service carries their phone calls now, he said.

Wireless data transmission of all kinds is exploding in the business world, even though analysts say cost-benefit research is scarce and its presence is rather small to date. According to the Yankee Group, a Boston- based market research and consulting firm, there were 990,000 mobile data network users last year, a figure that will double this year and rise to 9.9 million in the year 2000.

Mobile data network service revenues totaled $370 million last year and are projected to rise to $700 million this year and $3.8 billion in 2000, Yankee Group says.

So far, the primary recipients have been industrial heavyweights such as RAM Mobile Data, a five-year-old, $300 million joint venture of BellSouth and RAM Broadcasting that built a nationwide network for wireless transmission by linking local radio dispatch networks. National Computer is a RAM Mobile Data client, for example, as are the Minnesota Vikings. A major competitor to RAM Mobile is Ardis, a 10-year-old joint venture of Motorola and IBM.

Smaller firms such as Racotek, which sold its operating system software to Minnegasco, Hertz, Quicksilver Express Courier and others, are trying to ride the radio-wireless wave too - as well as a parallel wave over cellular phone networks by creating open-systems software for that technology, too.

US West and other regional Bell companies compete in cellular throughout the country, primarily with McCaw Cellular companies such as Cellular One. McCaw, in turn, was acquired last year by AT&T. Cellular "circuit" transmission of data has been used little so far because of security and heavy-traffic barriers. But those problems are being addressed, both in the lower-tech circuit realm and in digitized message "packets" that carry more data, said Roberta Wiggins, director of wireless mobile communications for the Yankee Group.

"We think basically there will be room for both radio and cellular as the user base grows," she said. "There are strengths and weaknesses for the different technologies, different requirements."

She said technical compatibility standards clearly need to be developed among the industry's hardware and software developers to enable customers to contact one another across systems that evolved in a highly still vary, she said.

Sanders said that Racotek, which has 100 employees and whose stock opened at $7 and soared to a high of $12 in its first month, sees the market developing as follows: first among the 7.1 million field service workers and 6.1 million transportation and distribution workers, where wireless data already has a toehold. Close upon the opening thrust would be an effort to make inroads among some 8.3 million sales people, 4.8 million managers, 2.8 million government workers and others, he said..

"People are becoming becoming more and more dependent on messaging systems," said consultant Keefner, who travels extensively in his business. "Look at answering machines today. It takes a while, but once you fall, it's hook, line and sinker. The same is true for E-mail. I am my Internet address. I stay tied to it."

COPYRIGHT 1994 Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

Posted by staff at April 21, 2009 09:19 AM