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Campus Internet hot spots wil change the way students work.

Regular readers know that I was a career student before I took this job. I started going to college in 1981. Thirteen years and few degrees later, I was still hanging around the university. The truth is, I loved school. Only dire poverty forced me to leave the university and get a real job. One of my favorite things to do at school was to hang out in the quad and study. There is nothing like sitting on a five-square-acre manicured lawn beneath old-growth elms while reading and taking notes. I’d still be doing it today if I could support my family in the process.

When I think about all my favorite places to study on campus–the coffee shop, the quad, the bar–they all have one thing in common: There is no place to plug a laptop into the Internet. When I was in school, most of the places where you could access the Internet on campus were dank basement rooms full of PCs. Consequently, the more I used the Internet as part of my studies, the less time I spent in my favorite study places. Eventually, I found myself holed up in a windowless room all day and into the night. While the official reason for my academic exit was cash flow, a subtler reason was a growing lack of enjoyment in studying. Environment played a big part in this.

Fortunately, many students returning to college this year won’t need to descend into the bowels of the Computer Science building to do their research. More and more campuses are unwiring their Internet access and giving students wireless broadband. The underlying technology is 802.11b, aka Wi-Fi. Though it was designed for wireless offices, smart hackers discovered it could make a great Internet access technology. It is 10 times faster than broadband connections. It is easy for users to connect to access points, or hot spots. And it’s very cost-effective. Best of all, if you set up enough hot spots, students can access the Internet anywhere on campus, anytime.

Though we will be covering the Wi-Fi phenomenon in depth next month in our annual Internet infrastructure issue, I just wanted to bring it up this month as part of our back-to-school issue. While hot spots are popping up all over town, campuses are seeing an explosion of them. Outside of large corporate campuses like Redmond, Wash., there are no better places for Wi-Fi than on college campuses. Not only is the population density relatively large, but everyone needs Internet access. To wire 50,000 students, teachers, and others with Ethernet in every office and every dorm room would be cost-prohibitive. That’s the main reason why computer labs exist. But with a relatively small investment, you could set up 100 hot spots on campus and connect all 50,000 clients with each other and the Internet. And they could be just as productive in the quad as they are in dank computer labs, and enjoy themselves more in the process.

My June column on the convergence of Web Services, peer-to-peer, and grid computing received tons of responses. The most useful came in just as I was writing this column. Metis Technologies of New York City has just released a product that looks very much like what I described in the June column–a suite of e-business tools that takes advantage of the three big trends to deliver real-time Web services and data integration to the people who need it most. The product is called Metis Collaboration Platform 5 (MCP 5). The release describing MCP 5 sounds like Metis Technologies built a real product around the hypothetical product described in my June column. The reality, of course, is that Metis has been developing this product for a long time, has extensively beta-tested it, and is now ready to release the mature product. As we highlight collaboration technologies in the cover story in this issue, this is one product that deserves a mention here.

Another reader responded to the June column reminding me that e-business in general and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) in particular have followed the Gartner Group’s path to innovation, from technology trigger to peak of inflated expectations to trough of disillusionment to maturation. The path resembles part of a sine wave: The technology trigger is the launch of the innovation followed by a lot of hype about all the problems it will solve; the peak of inflated expectations is the time when every early adopter wants to get his hands on the product to solve those problems; after several high-profile failures, the technology press gives up on the technology, where it enters the trough of disillusionment. Finally, after all the bugs are worked out and the product really does most of what it’s supposed to do, it reaches maturation.

I often study Gartner’s plots of new innovations as a guide to when we should cover them. One complication in reading these plots is that technologies don’t cover all the ground at the same rate. For example, while CRM has been in the trough of disillusionment for about 18 months, Wi-Fi spent, at most, three months in the trough. My sense has always been to try to cover technologies just as they hit maturation, about which this reader rightly pointed out, “That’s when we get out our wallets.” MCP 5 is one indication that CRM is finally pulling itself out of the trough of disillusionment and our readers can begin to get their wallets out.

One of the benefits of a down market is talent. Folks who had their pick of jobs in the go-go ’90s are looking for work now. At COMPUTERUSER, we have been reaping the benefits of this phenomenon for the past six months. We have slowly upgraded our sales and marketing departments to the point where they are the strongest they have been since I’ve been on the job. Indeed, every level of our company is stronger than it’s ever been.

That is also true of editorial. I have the privilege to welcome Elizabeth Millard to our editorial staff as our new associate editor. Elizabeth’s résumé is so strong I was tempted to hire her sight unseen. She worked her way through Harvard University in various positions at The MIT Press. In the process, she built up one of the most impressive technology writing portfolios in the business, including several clips from The Boston Globe, Business 2.0, BusinessWeek, The Industry Standard, and dozens of other publications. Look for monthly features and reviews and sharpened copy editing in this and future issues.

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