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Looking for leaders in the wireless world

Sierra Wireless, Compaq, HP, and others join forces to speed the adoption of wireless data services, continuing a trend toward partnerships to expand network computing.

    Wireless industry leaders and PC makers have joined forces to speed the adoption of wireless data services, continuing a trend toward partnerships to expand network computing.

    The new consortium, the WirelessReady Alliance, is led by Sierra Wireless, a mid-sized hardware maker specializing in wireless modems. The alliance, which includes Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Casio, and Sharp, was formed to create embedded wireless technologies in laptops, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and next-generation handheld computers for remote email access, virtual private networks (VPNs) and other Internet-based services.

    But some experts question whether the consortium, which has heavyweight backing from wireless service providers AT&T Wireless and Bell Atlantic Mobile, software makers and the new Microsoft-Qualcomm venture WirelessKnowledge, will do more than just promote one of many wireless connectivity technologies.

    Analysts, pointing to the proliferation of mobile computing devices, said connectivity is a key ingredient to satisfying busy consumers and mobile professionals.

    "We're seeing the mobile professional walking around with three or four devices and they're always looking for connectivity," said Terry Nozick, an industry analyst at Mobile Insights, a mobile computing consulting firm. "This alliance is a response to the fact that many manufacturers are looking into cellular because everyone's looking for wireless connectivity and synchronization."

    Searching for solutions
    The growth of handheld computers has exploded. And smart phones--with expected use to balloon from 100,000 units to more than 11 million by 2002, according to some estimates--may not be sophisticated enough for some future mobile data applications.

    "The [data] solutions today aren't terribly complete," said Andrew Harries, vice president of marketing for Sierra Wireless. "We want to accelerate the growth of the industry through the delivery of compelling wireless data solutions."

    But Harries said there are not enough wireless applications now, and there has been no organized effort to improve the situation.

    "No one is really pulling the disparate pieces together," he said.

    Analysts said the wireless industry is ready for a company to take a leadership role, since there are several competing technologies and connectivity standards on the market today.

    "Next year standards and alliances will help steer manufacturers to making more informed decisions about which way to go with wireless," Nozick said.

    Getting wireless devices to work with one another, known as interoperability, and providing integrated data services is essential to expanding the wireless industry's reach to the mass market, analysts said. Earlier this year, Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba, formed a coalition named Bluetooth to push for a mobile wireless specifications, which, like the WirelessReady Alliance, aims to capitalize on the growing demand for mobile connectivity.

    "Interoperability is what drives product into the retail space," said Zia Daniell, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. "That's what's been behind it in the cable modem industry, the DSL industry, and now in wireless."

    Revolutionary, or just retail?
    Although the WirelessReady Alliance is not a standards-setting body, or a technology advocacy group such as the Wireless Data Forum, it will provide lab testing facilities that could eventually lead to the formation of a certification process. The WirelessReady certification would ensure that next-generation handhelds are compatible with data services and service plans from the 18-member alliance.

    But some analysts question whether the alliance will truly expand wireless data services or simply push Sierra Wireless' products.

    Sierra largely utilizes Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), a wireless connectivity technology. But there are several other transmission technologies available, including Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), and Global System for Mobile Computing (GSM)--limiting the ability of phones and portable devices to work with other networks across the country.

    Those roaming limitations have hampered the cellular phone and paging industries, analysts said, and is one reason wireless technologies are more advanced in Europe where GSM is the standard of choice.

    "Unless [the alliance] invites in competing technologies, everyone won't win in the long run," said Weston Hendereck, a wireless analyst at GIGA Information Group. "This is a good first step, but there will need to be more initiatives like this encompassing broader technologies for there to be any lasting effects."