IBM Embraces Wireless

Developing low-power microchips for third-generation mobile phones

 June 11 - 17, 2001

Just when analysts are saying the wireless future is more hype than fact, IBM has decided to prove them wrong. Having been rolled over by the mighty Microsoft, and plainly left behind by the technology revolution, they are making a risky but calculated move. "Wireless has reached a point where it's no longer an early-adopter space," said Val Rahmani, general manager of wireless solutions at IBM. "It's moving out to the masses." In fact, IBM says the wireless market will grow 50 per cent each year across all industries through 2003. This past week the company made the following announcements. The ThinkPad A Series is being updated, making it better suited for wireless communications by replacing a kludgy external antenna with one that fits within the notebook frame. Two WorkPad handhelds were introduced, each based on Palm's Pilot IV with monochrome and color displays. By next year, IBM will give customers a way to administer IBM's entire server line from PDAs, mobile phones, and other handhelds. IBM Global Services will sell Instant Wireless LAN service designed to help customers install a basic wireless network in two days. IBM and Mitsubishi Electric Corp. are jointly developing low-power microchips for third-generation mobile phones.

It will be offering built-in wireless capabilities across more of its ThinkPad line of laptop computers, adding new momentum to a wireless standard that has so far gained wider acceptance than Bluetooth. The company will be installing special antennas within the screens on all laptops. Customers will be able to configure many of those machines with a built-in computer card for wireless connections to other devices equipped with Wi-Fi technology. Compaq Computer Corp. unveiled a new family of business-oriented computers designed for easier compatibility with various types of networks, as well as wireless connections via both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Compaq said it will fuel the launch with aggressive pricing on two new Evo laptops, including an ultralight machine that would compete with the sleek and slim notebooks sold by Sony and Apple Computer. As part of its expanded wireless push, IBM also said it is offering remote management technology to allow system administrators to control corporate network servers from afar with handheld computers and other portable devices. IBM also introduced a new service designed to helps companies quickly adapt their computer systems for wireless compatibility. IBM has also mastered a deal to embed its chips in the next generation of cell phones from Mitsubishi Electric.

IBM isn't breaking much new ground with this latest wireless push, instead adding its name to a growing number of companies offering similar wireless products. But analysts say the computing giant's endorsement of wireless technologies is significant, particularly at a time when many questions about the future of the wireless industry are being raised. "People in the wireless industry have asked computer makers to embed wireless devices in devices," said Alan Reiter of Outlook4Mobility, a research and consulting firm. "The argument given, with some validity, is why should we put an extra cost option into a computer where we really aren't sure if there is a significant mass market? "If IBM is indeed offering wireless as a standard feature, then it does give credibility to the whole concept of wireless as an essential part of computing," Reiter said. Many analysts expect that the computing giant is likely to play a significant role in shaping the wireless sector."IBM clearly wants to be a player, and given their size and customer base, they will be," said Peter Friedland, a senior analyst with W.R. Hambrecht, an investment bank. Keith Waryas, an analyst with market research firm IDC, said IBM's move might position the company to take the lead in wireless consulting, just as it's done well in consulting for the wired side of the industry. "They are huge on the consulting level," Waryas said. "They literally coined the term 'e-biz.' This represents an obvious extension down that path." Although it has been knocked recently, the wireless industry is headed for some boom times, according to many analysts projections. Gartner, for instance, says that by 2003, the average worker will have three devices, ranging from a laptop, a phone or a personal digital assistant. Other analysts are forecasting that by 2010, telephone service providers focusing on the next generation of high-speed cell phones will make a total of $1 trillion in revenue. IBM's bet on the wireless market will depend heavily on motivating software developers to build pervasive-computing apps. To that end, the system vendor added wireless programs to its PartnerWorld for Developers initiative. The new programs include education for sales and technical staff, as well as partner certification. Peter Rowley, general manager of IBM Global Business Partners, admits that IBM isn't the expert on wireless business strategies. "I will not tell you that we're the best at advising the end user," Rowley said. "That's where our partner program comes in."