Great Expectations

Wi-Fi, PCs and Laptops

Wi-Fi Hot Spots

You'd have to be a hermit to not notice the way Wi-Fi hot spots are emerging across the nation. Coverage from a variety of sources will continue to expand in 2005. That's good news for mobile entrepreneurs and their on-the-go employees, who can log on from just about any city they find themselves in.

While many hot spots are free, businesspeople who need reliability prefer paid services like those offered by Boingo Wireless, Starbucks and T-Mobile. Duparcq sees a trend of a growing number of hot spots becoming available followed by some consolidation as larger providers gather smaller ones.

Hot spots will arrive in increasingly unusual places. How would you like to get Internet access from the corner phone booth or a soda machine? Verizon has already equipped quite a few phone booths in New York City to allow access for subscribers. Pretty soon, you won't be able to toss a hot dog in Manhattan without it flying through half a dozen hot spots. And the rest of the country, particularly the larger metropolitan areas, will be following along.

But this trend isn't just about road warriors logging on-it's also about businesses offering Wi-Fi as a perk to their customers. This really makes sense for places like coffee shops, restaurants and other locations where people are likely to hang around for a bit. The reasons driving this growth can bear some scrutiny.

"If they do it in the first place to make more money based on customers paying for the usage, I think many of them will come out disappointed," says Duparcq. Entrepreneurs who turn their businesses into hot spots to compete with rivals or to improve their internal business functions will see the most benefits. Expect 802.11g to be the dominant standard in 2005. More and more entrepreneurs will get onboard as prices come down even further on an already affordable and useful technology.

PCs

The desktop PC is still the cornerstone of business technology investments. Next year should be a mild renaissance year for PC sales. A report for 2004 from tech research firm Forrester Research showed that 95 percent of small and midsize businesses were planning to invest in new PCs. That trend will roll over into 2005.

We talked with Louis Kim, director of business PCs at Hewlett-Packard, about what to expect in desktops next year. While a variety of computer shapes and sizes will be available, there are some interesting trends going on under the hood. Security and manageability are two items to keep an eye on.

"What's missing is a secure, hardware-based storage of security keys and passwords," says Kim. Security on a chip, also called trusted client platform, is a recent development from the past couple of years. The chip stores passwords and security keys separate from the hard drive, making them nearly impossible to hack. Now Hewlett-Packard and most major computer manufacturers are offering the chip in business desktops. It's one feature to look for next year when purchasing or upgrading systems.

Manageability will also be big. "Manageability software at its most basic level gives you the ability to inventory all your computers in the network and monitor the health and the currency of all the software and drivers-all from one computer," says Kim. Look for manufacturers to promote this to entrepreneurs in the coming year as a way to save time, automate computer updates systemwide, and catch hardware failures before they happen.

Soon, your desktop may not even be on your desk anymore. While thin clients and blade PCs have been in the domain of enterprises, they're starting to move into smaller companies. Blades behave a lot like regular PCs. Each user gets his or her own blade, but the devices sit together in a room and are connected through a network. "Long term, blade PCs have a larger potential to supplant more desktop PCs because the experience at a user's desk is closer to that of a PC," says Kim. Blades are a good fit for businesses with limited IT staffs due to the ease of maintenance and central location of the hardware.

Laptops

On the portable side, laptops will continue to increase in popularity. Whether entrepreneurs are looking for lightweight mobility or a portable replacement for a desktop PC, notebook computers are where they're turning. "We see a continuing trend to have notebooks as a larger and larger percentage of overall PC sales," says Ted Clark, vice president of mobile computing at Hewlett-Packard. With attractive price points, powerful specs and decent battery life, look for 2005 to be a big year for laptops in growing businesses.

Wireless is still a big buzz when it comes to mobile computing. Next year will see a shift from 802.11b Wi-Fi to the faster 802.11g Wi-Fi as standard equipment in business machines. Clark also sees a bright future for widescreen notebooks that feature a lot of viewing space without being too clunky. Database, spreadsheet and multimedia users will get the most out of purchasing laptops with widescreen technology.

Is It There Yet?
Ultrawideband (UWB) radio technology for short-range wireless holds a lot of promise: speeds exceeding 400Mbps data transfer, low cost and low power consumption. Proponents say UWB could be positioned as a cheaper and stronger alternative to Bluetooth. It packs enough bandwidth to handle multimedia and streaming video. Think of it as a particularly robust form of cable replacement.

That all sounds good, but right now those dulcet tones are being drowned out by industry squabbling. Two competing standards factions have slowed official ratification of an industrywide standard. And that means 2005 may not be the year for UWB to reach growing businesses after all. But the technology world is quite fickle, so UWB is still a technology to keep an eye on over the next year.

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This article was originally published in the September 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Great Expectations.

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