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Wireless is the future. Really.

Although it should be some time before everyone on the bus is surfing the Web, the possibility isn’t as far-fetched as it once was. Wireless for everyone is more than just a goal for some companies. It’s a vision they mean to make into reality, and soon.

Ever since Guglielmo Marconi found a way to send a message across the English Channel without getting so much as a toe wet, making the world more wireless has been the goal of inventors, enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs. However, despite the advances in wireless telecommunications over the last 100 years, getting computers to communicate easily with each other wirelessly has remained a somewhat elusive goal. Security concerns, high prices, and conflicting technologies created a small population of wireless devotees eager to put their techie skills to the test, but left most people still tethered to their desks.

Ready for a revolution worthy of Marconi? Although it’s taken its sweet time in getting here, wireless computing is set for a boom. Refined security measures have strengthened the weak links in the chain, and price tags couldn’t look more attractive. Added to those powerful incentives for going wireless, there are initiatives afoot to boost the number of hotspots-places like coffee shops and campuses that offer wireless to its denizens and students.

Although it should be some time before everyone on the bus is surfing the Web, the possibility isn’t as far-fetched as it once was. Wireless for everyone is more than just a goal for some companies-it’s a vision they mean to make into reality, and soon.

Overcoming insecurity

There are many reasons that wireless has yet to be so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice it anymore. One is cost, both for equipment and access. The types of devices that have been available up until now weren’t really reasonable for the everyday Internet-goer. Usually, a wireless setup would set a homeowner back at least $1,000, and often the bill might be double that, depending on the number of computers involved. Also, wireless could really only be used with high-speed broadband, so more cash was needed to upgrade from a dial-up connection to cable or DSL.

For years, the situation didn’t seem to be getting any better, but it wasn’t due to lack of interest. Rather, you can blame simple economics for some of it. Because the economy tanked when wireless was really beginning to take off, the industry suffered and adoption lagged. Many smaller wireless technology manufacturers were more focused on taking cover from the storm than on bringing out products that drove prices down.

The largest barrier to widespread wireless, though, had to do with security. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. When cordless phones first came out, anyone with a police scanner could listen in on calls if they knew the right frequency. With wireless equipment, a similar back door was discovered almost immediately after the first wireless networks were installed. As a matter of necessity, wireless access points have to broadcast network information, and the beacons used to do this were unencrypted. That meant that until strong security could be implemented, company data was often on display to those who knew where to look.

Hackers reveled in displaying how often they could crack wireless networks just by sitting in a company parking lot with a laptop and some custom software. As security organizations and associations worked to make wireless more hackproof, gradual improvement finally lessened the anxiety of technology executives everywhere.

“Right now, the wireless water is warm and safe, and everyone can jump in,” says Dave Juitt, CTO of wireless network company Bluesocket. “But it wasn’t always that way. We’re in the second generation of wireless now, and thank goodness for that. The first generation had a lot of issues that needed to be addressed.”

Wireless world

With many security problems resolved, and costs down to the easy-to-buy level, wireless is finally catching on, and it’s only due to become more popular, analysts say. The technology is useful in a variety of ways, beyond merely getting rid of that tangle of wires under every desk. Not only can wireless networks and devices allow employees to be more mobile, but sometimes they can also be used in ways that wired technology can’t.

For example, attorneys at Seattle-based Summit Law swap instant messages to each other during court cases to comment on witness testimony. They also send notes to their paralegals back at the office, and are able to get information for their cross examinations within moments. Randy Squires, an attorney at the firm, says that using wireless has given him an edge over other lawyers. “I can follow my hunches,” he says. “Not using wireless to do this might add days onto a trial, but now I can do it in minutes.”

Other companies boast of similar stories, as employees learn to use wireless in new and inventive ways. The ability to receive e-mails from inside a client’s office gives salespeople the power to get updated press releases or new information. Because many companies have started using applications that can be delivered over the Web, staffers can submit expense reports or access their data archives from hotel lobbies, training classrooms, or conference rooms.

Home users of wireless can surf the Web from the couch, or bring a laptop down to the workroom and call up the Do It Yourself network page while tinkering with home improvement projects. Web cameras set up near the front door means homes can also have a wireless security system. Want to know who’s ringing the doorbell? Just a few clicks, and you can see them through your wireless-enabled device from anywhere in the house.

Future so bright

The push toward more wireless ability is growing, and fast. One indication that wireless is due to spread is the steady rise in wireless training options for technology professionals. IT staffers are learning the intricacies of setting up wireless networks, making wireless more seamless within a company, and solving interoperability issues that might crop up between devices and laptops. Since home users are keen to get wireless as well, training has been developed for professionals who want to specialize in home networks, and the enrollment rate is climbing.

The abundance of wireless devices due to arrive is another tip-off that the wireless revolution is in full swing. Carl Andersson, vice president of marketing at Stockholm-based Columbitech, notes that the move toward wireless is a worldwide phenomenon that’s due to get more widespread as more manufacturers enter the scene.

“The start-up companies in the industry have grown very strong,” he says. Companies like Airprism, Bluesocket, and Bitfone are seeing rising consumer and corporate interest, and giants like Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM are rolling out more wireless products every day. The result, Andersson says, is that we’ll be seeing a greater variety of wireless networking tools and devices than ever before, and the competition will keep the prices down.

The proliferation of wireless devices available now and in the near future has the ability to change how business and personal computing is done, according to Andersson. “This is a very exciting time,” he says. “Absolutely, the next few years should prove to be interesting.”

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