What is all this hysteria and folderol about wireless?

I mean it seems you cant go anywhere these days without some cellular or mobile computing company touting the virtues of doing away with wires. If we would only eliminate those nasty strips of metal encased in rubber, such companies tell us, our lives would be a fabulous fantasy in which Catherine Zeta-Jones would be at our side appealingly praising our perspicacity (not that theres anything wrong with that).

In the tech community, the hype is growing to epidemic proportions. Wireless technologypersonal digital assistants (PDAs) with e-mail, computers on our wrists, hot-spots that let us connect to the Web while sipping trendy lattesis ready to explode, the pundits tell us. And it must be true, because theyve been telling us that for at least 5 years now.

The pundits may one day be proven correct, but why must we stoop to demonizing the wire, an entity whose history in our nationand indeed the world overhas been one of selfless service?

On that fateful day in 1844 when Samuel Morse sent the telegraph message “What hath God wrought?” from the U.S. Supreme Court chamber to Baltimore, the course of communication in the civilized world changed foreverand wire was an integral part of that change. From electric power to telegraph to telephone to transoceanic cables, wire has been the medium that has enabled the tremendous technological growth of the 20th century.

And the wire has served valiantly in corollary rolesas a “rest stop” for millions of birds who wend their way south and north each year, and as a bridge of safety that spans the dangerous highways we humans have invented to wipe out the squirrel population. (Oh sure, a few furry creatures morph into crispy critters when they step on the wrong wire, but what ever happened to the idea of personal responsibility?) Yet marketers of wireless devices dismiss the noble wire as a technology pariah that “gets tangled” and “causes clutter.”

Wireless is hardly a new idea, though. In fact, in the early days of radio, that device often was referred to as “wireless.” And my more seasoned readers may remember Dick Tracy and his fabulous watch, which wirelessly carried all kinds of communication across comic-strip land. Ironically, such watches actually are being sold todaypart of the “wireless revolution.”

I also find it interesting, however, that when we as a nation had achieved free, wireless television transmission in the 1950s, we turned right around and went back to wires, and we were happy to pay a hefty premium to do so. By the way, heres a neato tech tip for those under 25: If you use that antenna thingy attached to your TV, you may still actually be able to tune in some of those wireless broadcasts, and you dont have to pay a dime for them! Cool, huh?

As much as wireless has been promoted, however, the rate of adoption for todays wireless technologies has been modest, to say the least. Ive heard estimates for wireless penetration in industries across the board at about 20%. According to analysts at Celent Communications in Houston, however, the adoption figure is 1% in the life insurance industry and only slightly better on the property-casualty side.

There are a variety of reasons for the slow fuse on the wireless bomb thats waiting to explode. Multiple proprietary standards, poor data security that is only now being addressed, and a profusion of discrete devices are among the retardant factors. When it comes to insurance, however, the problem is that practical applications are few, and even those applications are not heavily utilized.

Wireless makes sense for agents with laptops in the field who need to send photos quickly and/or documents for quick processing of claims, and the industry is seeing some use of the technology in that way. Basically, anything that demands an instant response will lend itself to wireless, but very little in our phlegmatic industry (other than claims processing) demands such a response.

So, why are so many still convinced that wireless technology is ready to blast off? The answer lies in the same kind of thinking that spawned the idea, and later the actual creation, of the Dick Tracy watch. “Its just so cool!” the pundits gush. “How could anyone not want to connect anywhere and do anything without wires?”

Theres the key. The pundits and technophiles are having so much fun with their wireless devices that they cant understand why everyone isnt rushing out to buy them by the boatload. Eventually, they believe, we will all come to see that wireless is, indeed, the future.

The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it ignores the need for a product to have practical application in the real world. Its one thing to snicker as we read and respond to our e-mail on the train, but its quite another to demonstrate that being able to do so is a boon to productivity or the bottom line. Proving value is something thats starting to happen with wireless, but that will not cause a stampede to Best Buy in the morning to clean out its stock of PDAs.

Instead, as Celent analyst Chad Hersh put it, “Where cost savings and revenue generation are to be had, [wireless] will be used.” Its that simple.

Cool is not enough; wires are not inherently bad. After all, even the “coolest” tech magazine around is still called “Wired.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, April 16, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.