With cell phones as common as desktop computers, wireless technology has already transformed the nature of work for most people. But what changes will high-speed connections and new wireless technology mean for you? When will video conferencing become more accessible? How will instant messaging work in your office?
In the first part of this series, we discussed how new chip and software technology would ultimately allow you to run any program on any machine. We also began our discussion of using wireless networking technology to work virtually anywhere. This week we’ll continue our look at wireless technology and finish by discussing how you can be virtually everywhere using conferencing and instant messaging technology.
The same technology that allows you to move freely about your building and stay connected to your internal network is being used by many Internet service providers (ISPs) to give companies high-speed Internet access, and by application service providers (ASPs) to allow high-speed application access within a particular city.

This technology is especially useful in second- and third-tier cities that are slow to adopt other high-speed technologies like DSL and cable modems. Once providers have built their metropolitan networks, it will be possible for a small business or home to buy a wireless receiver, mount it next to their building (or house), and automatically register with a local provider.

An additional receiver/router inside the building will pick up the signal and share it with other devices in the same building. With advanced 128-bit encryption technology, you can keep other people from “listening” on the same channels and gaining unauthorized access to your network.

Wireless networks won’t just continue to get larger. They’ll get smaller as well. By mid-summer you will begin to see devices conforming to the Bluetooth wireless standard.

Bluetooth allows devices within 30 feet of each other to dynamically participate in a network, dramatically changing the way we work. Your personal devices won’t need hard wires to synchronize. For example, you can leave your Windows CE device or PalmPilot in your pocket at the office, and the handheld will “wake up” on its own and synchronize with your e-mail or favorite Web pages. So when you need it, it is completely updated—without your having done a thing.

Printing to Bluetooth-enabled printers will make it easy to print out the documents you wrote on the PDA and need to print for the meeting—whether you’re in your office or your customer’s. Expect to see Bluetooth drivers in new versions of Windows and Linux as well as handheld operating systems like the Palm , Windows CE, and Psion.

Video conferencing
Though we’ve had White Pine video conferencing software and Microsoft NetMeeting for years, why hasn’t video and audio conferencing taken off?

First, it’s been the lack of ubiquitous high-speed networking. It takes a lot of bandwidth to push any more than an eight-frame-per-second, postage-stamp-size image around on the screen (30 frames/second is “movie quality”).

That problem is being solved with the increasing availability of high-speed bandwidth. Depending on the connection speed, participants can use any connection type—video, audio, data, or even telephone—and still participate in the conversation.

For networks that don’t have the bandwidth to support broad adoption of video conferencing, there are still options that allow you to be everywhere. Audio conferencing requires very little bandwidth but still allows you to talk over long distances using the computer and the Internet.

By integrating your PBX with your network using an H.323 gateway, you can allow both computer users and telephone users to participate in the same conference.

The real impediment to the adoption of multi-site conferencing solutions is the cost of the multi-channel conferencing unit (MCU). White Pine and NetMeeting are point-to-point solutions (i.e., they allow any two people to talk), and both have to be at their computers for the duration of the conversation. An MCU allows multiple people to connect at the same time and talk to each other over the best available connection.

In the past, MCUs were expensive hardware devices. But last year, IBM/Lotus acquired a company named DataBeam, which developed a software-only MCU solution. Lotus has since released a conferencing server based on this technology.

This summer, Microsoft will release their conferencing server as part of their Exchange 2000 product. Microsoft’s Exchange Conferencing Server will have the added benefit of support for the Microsoft Active Directory and the Quality of Service (QOS) technology built into Windows 2000.

The Active Directory will contain all of a user’s contact and connection information, making it easy for two people separated by thousands of miles to locate each other easily and start a conference. By using QOS, a network administrator can allow conferencing users to reserve large portions of a network’s available bandwidth to insure that conference participants have a pleasing experience.

Software MCUs will make conferencing affordable for everyone. For companies that can’t afford to bring one up and host it themselves, ISPs and ASPs will provide shared access to MCUs. For the first time, employees in your company will be able to schedule and participate in video, audio, and data conferences with other people around the world, as long as those people have any communications device that can connect to the software MCU. In other words, they have to be able to get to a phone. For companies with high-speed Internet access, multi-site video conferencing will be convenient and affordable.

Instant messaging
Being able to schedule conferences with other people will replace many local planned meetings. But how do you replace the ad hoc, “talk at the water cooler” meetings that so often take place?

That’s what detecting “presence” is all about. Millions of users of AOL’s Instant Messenger and Microsoft HotMail’s Instant Messaging (IM) feature know how valuable this feature can be.

To use an instant messaging product, log on to the product when you sign into your computer. You can set your status to “in”, “busy”, “out to lunch”, “away from my desk,” or any of several other selections.

When you’re in, someone else on the system can “see” that you’re available (if you’ve given them permission to do so) and try to initiate a conversation by sending you a message. If you choose to answer, then a dialogue can begin.

You can also invite others to participate in the dialogue. When using Microsoft’s IM you can even choose to convert the chat conversation into a full-blown online conference.

Although these products are primarily Internet-based today, Microsoft will be releasing the corporate version (that will integrate with the Internet registrants as well) with the next version of Microsoft Exchange this summer. This really gets interesting when you add cell phones and PDAs to the mix.

With “presence tracking” turned on, you could allow others to engage you in ad-hoc discussions anywhere you have service. Although cell phone data communications are currently limited to 19.2K, we should see speeds in the 56K- to 2M-range by the end of this year. With that kind of bandwidth, you can do data and audio conferencing efficiently on PDAs or cellular phones.
What other possibilities do you see with wireless products? Will it make your workday more productive? Will it make work harder to get away from? Is your office already using wireless products? Let us know by posting a comment below or sending us an e-mail .