Wireless in bloom
Dell Insight: These days, it seems like everyone is talking about wireless fidelity, or "Wi-Fi." Why is Wi-Fi such a hot topic at the moment?
Roger Kay: The main reason we hear so much about wireless technology is that it finally has arrived. For years, people have been envisioning the day when we could break free of the cords and the wires and the outlets, just pop open the laptop, and instantly be connected to the Internet from almost anywhere. That day is here, although we are still in the early stages of wireless adoption and availability.
DI: Will businesses see real cost savings as a result of improved power management features?
DI: It's easy to see how mobility could help employees work more productively because they will not be tied down to a desk or office. But aren't most employees actually office squatters—people who don't travel very much and, therefore, often do not find themselves in need of increased mobility?
RK: Yes, it's true that the most mobile workers tend to be the highly compensated top execs or sales and management professionals. But even employees who spend most of their time working from a single location can derive value from becoming more mobile.
At IDC, we assembled a series of models to demonstrate cost savings and benefits of this new technology. First, we looked at top execs—the people you would expect to derive the most benefits from mobility. We started off with a fully loaded salary of $125,000—a compensation package expected for a highly mobile, productive individual. Despite the perception that mobility allows you to work at all possible hours, we made our calculations conservatively using an eight-hour, five-day basis, and an assumption of 22 workdays per month. Standardizing on 2,112 hours per year yields a productivity potential of $59.19 per hour.
For someone who takes four trips per month, the productivity gain is eight hours per month, valued at $473.52.
DI: That's a fairly modest gain for an enterprise, isn't it?
RK: Yes, but if you multiply that gain by 12 months in a year, the total easily justifies a $2,000 $3,000 purchase of a productivity tool such as a notebook computer.
DI: What about the rest of an enterprise's employees? After all, the non- office workers comprise the majority of workers at most businesses.
RK: We examined productivity gains for this group, too. Office workers are unlikely to travel as often as upper management or sales professionals, but some do have opportunities for increased productivity because they will be able to move from work area to work area within a campus. One of the interesting effects of increased mobility will be the ability to extend those work areas. As a result of utilizing wireless technology, office workers will not have to gather around a network cable or compete for the two cables available in the conference room. They can collaborate in any conference room, atrium, or hallway, or even in the middle of the cafeteria. Using the same assumptions about hours worked per month, a fully loaded salary of half that of an executive manager, and an increased productivity gain of half the number of hours of mobile professionals, we still gain $118.37 per month or $1,420.45 per year per employee.
DI: Does that amount of savings justify the purchase of a Wi-Fienabled notebook?
DI: If mainstream workers have the ability to do more work from anywhere at anytime, they might work more than the predicted eight-hour day, right?
RK: Definitely. Mainstream workers are more likely to do some computing on their own time if it is easy and convenient.
DI: Now for the big question: Is that a good thing? Or might the ability to work more hours create the expectation that employees should work more hours?
RK: This is definitely a valid question. Wi-Fi allows a huge amount of time and location independence for people who know how to use it responsibly. Wireless can induce you to juggle a lot of activities at the same time, working nights and weekends and odd times. But it also allows you to drive your kids to school or take bike rides midday. The idea is that people who are willing to work when and where they need to work can use Wi-Fi to optimise their lifestyles. You can mix work and play quite a bit, if you like.
But if you are single without a family, and you find yourself bored and without a date on Friday night, you could conceivably work till midnight—and you just might do that. There is nothing to prevent you from working too much.
I think this issue is something for companies to consider and make sure their employees aren't working too much. It's not that businesses don't want their employees to work hard and often—corporations love to squeeze more and more productivity out of workers. But it's in the interest of a company to promote a healthy work-life balance, because if employees burn out, they are no good to anybody.
DI: So perhaps this technology requires management to put the proper spin on its benefits.
RK: Definitely. In fact, you see this delicacy in the way companies are trying to talk about wireless capabilities. They're trying not to say, "And you can work anytime and anywhere!" Because if you say it like that, you are implying that you want your employees to work all of the time, and not go home and have personal lives. So maybe you need to rephrase by saying, "Wireless allows you more location and time independence so you can manage your own schedule in the way that is best for you." Tell employees that they might work at home for a little bit, just close the lid on the notebook, drop it in a bag, come to work, and open up the notebook again. You can move seamlessly among different work areas and be productive without losing a lot of time to the friction of moving from here to there.
DI: Most employees probably would say that this type of corporate attitude is great. But to make it a reality, enterprises would need to invest a lot of money into refreshing their PC base. How many companies today are in a financial position to invest money in a "nice but unnecessary" technology?
RK: Well, this is a conflict among IT, employees, and the financial office. The financial office says that the company is not doing any major rollouts or deployments. The CFO is disappointed in the results of the CIO's programs from the late '90s—those great innovations in e-commerce that were going to make gazillions of dollars but never did. The CFO now is suspicious of the CIO's programs.
Alternatively, companies need vision. They need to understand that investing in Wi-Fi is not the same thing as converting your entire business to e-commerce. Wi-Fi improves the infrastructure to enhance productivity. I think some companies will buy into it and deploy, and others will say, "That's not what I need right now." Regardless, most PC clients are rather old and probably will need to be replaced fairly soon. IDC has forecast that this major client refresh will begin in earnest by the end of 2003. As enterprises refresh, what will they do? Will they move desktop people to notebooks or re-outfit them with desktops? Will they move notebook people from wired to wireless? We will have to wait and see.
RK: Yes, absolutely. But without a virtual private network (VPN), companies are naked, and the cost of lost intellectual property could be astronomical. Bits of data flying through the air are problematic; they must be encrypted with something more than existing wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption. These bits are eminently hackable, and people can download free programs on the Web to hack into wireless signals. So Wi-Fi requires that corporations have a complete tunnel from the client end all the way to the corporate network. Otherwise, someone can piggyback you and sniff your traffic. To the degree the compromised client has access, hackers can enter your corporate network as well. I know some companies have hesitated to deploy Wi-Fi simply because they don't want to pay for a VPN (virtual private network). But when companies are ready to deploy WLANs (wireless LANs), a VPN can make it secure enough.
is vice president of client computing at IDC. He holds responsibility for covering technological, market, and competitive developments related to desktop and portable personal computers. In his capacity as leader of the PC client team, Roger authors research on competition, technology, and markets in the PC business; produces forecasts; speaks at IDC and other industry forums; contributes to consulting projects; and advises PC industry participants on desktop and notebook matters.
Roger received a B.F.A. from Bennington College and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. He is multilingual, world-travelled, and has bicycled over the Alps. He now lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two young children.