If there's one thing we've learned about technology, it's that it comes with one heck of a marketing department. Every January we hear that this is the year of something or another. But crossing one's fingers and plunking down the money to try the new model won't magically make it any better than those that came before it. When it comes to important technology investments that can make or break a business, there's no guarantee that the buzz will translate into bucks. Counting on the coming of new technology is about as risky as betting on a timely arrival at the local airport.
For some, the due date really is this year. For others, perhaps, the next. And for a few, well, don't hold your breath.
Here we look at several innovations on the brink. Notably, most of them deal with communications rather than computers, because bandwidth and connectivity are fast replacing gadgets and gigabytes as the bywords of the tech industry.
The Internet doesn't fully make sense unless your connection is always there and always on. (And if you're still using a dial-up connection, you'll have to take our word for it.) Oddly enough, it's not so much the speed of a broadband connection that matters, it's the fact that you click a button and -- bang! -- there's the morning memo, the latest industry news, and the weather report for the company ski trip. You wouldn't bother with all of this if you had to sit around waiting for a modem to connect.
Most companies still using a dial-up connection simply haven't found a good, affordable alternative. Sure, a lot of telcos have been squawking about the high-speed Internet, but they haven't made much headway in many towns. Shelling out for ISDN or a T1 is always an option, but both are expensive and their money-making benefits aren't always clear. For now, most low-cost, high-speed connections are coming in the form of cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) connections.
Because the cable companies were able to retool their systems faster than phone companies, they were able to offer broadband earlier. As a result, the cable companies have the most widespread service. However, this puts some businesses in a curious position. Since cable service is largely concentrated in homes, not businesses, they may find that the summer interns can get a high-speed connection before the company can.
Cahners In-Stat Group claims that more than 77 million homes currently subscribe to cable TV services, and expects cable Internet access to swell from about 2 million today to about 10 million by the end of 2002. But DSL is shaping up to be the small business connection of choice (at least for the time being), and DSL services are seeing similar growth, according to the research group TeleChoice. It estimates the number of DSL lines will soon catch up with cable, increasing from approximately a half million in service as of the end of 1999 to 9.6 million lines by the end of 2003.
Does that mean everybody and their uncles will have broadband access? No, but it probably means that if you want it, you will.
The majority of small businesses still don't have a computer network. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is surely that getting the wiring in place to support a network is prohibitively complex for most novices and a budget breaker if you decide to hire a contractor.
Over the last couple of years the networking industry has tried to introduce a couple of ways to get around the wiring problem. Some systems operate over existing phone lines, and at least one uses a building's electrical wiring system. But the option that promised to be the least painful of all was simply doing away with the wiring altogether.
In the past, building a wireless network meant spending several times what a cabled network would cost, and using one vendor's equipment exclusively (nobody bothered with cross-vendor compatibility). Plus, you had to be ready to accept network speeds roughly one-tenth as fast as what you'd get from a conventional Ethernet installation.
Last year, though, things sped up. First of all, the transfer rates are now much higher. Even better, the industry has been smoothing out some of the roadblocks that kept its members from playing together without a fuss. A standard for wireless Ethernet at roughly the same speed as conventional Ethernet has been approved, and the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) instituted a testing program that grants a "Wi-Fi" (Wireless Fidelity) seal only to products that operate correctly when paired with equipment from other manufacturers.
"All the major networking vendors have agreed on this technology and most of them have already begun shipping products at price points that a small business person is likely to be able to afford," says David Cohen, manager of wireless computing for 3Com and vice chairman of WECA. "With a Wi-Fi network, anything that a small business spends is transferable. If the whole business outgrows its space and needs to move across town to a new space, everyone just packs up their equipment -- their access points, their computers, and their network cards -- and moves it to the new space. Then they just set everything back up."
Engineering and design are obviously the main reason some technologies take forever to finally come on the market. But the never-ending squabbling and in-fighting of the tech companies themselves also has a lot to do with it. With both these problems seemingly behind them, wireless networks should begin to enter the mainstream this year.
But networking isn't what most people think about when they hear the word "wireless." They think about phones, pagers, and perhaps Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). The latest sales buzz touts the many benefits of connecting these devices to the Internet, and their purported potential as platforms for what the industry calls "M-commerce." But don't hold your breath.
Odds are, you didn't run to your local cell phone dealer when Sprint's Wireless Web commercials started appearing on TV. All the same, your next cell phone will almost certainly have some sort of Internet capability. The next generation of wireless applications, most of them based on an industry standard called WAP (Wireless Application Protocol), will be "location-aware."
This will be a darned-handy way for a businessperson in a strange town to find out if there's a copy shop around the corner, but will he really want to browse through a Web store on a tiny screen? More to the point, should any company put its livelihood on the line by retrofitting its current Web site to serve wireless users? For now, it's best to hold off.
Let's face it, phones were made to be talked into, not to be looked at. That's why the faster route to mobile commerce may be through services that let users give verbal instructions over the phone, rather than forcing them to type in entries using a keypad (tapping the "2" once for "A," twice for "B," thrice for "C", etc.).
The technology that can make voice recognition a reality is called Interactive Voice Response, which has long been considered arcane and expensive. But in the past year IVR has met the Web and a "language" called VoiceXML has been created to help translate what a person says into instructions for a Web server. The upshot is that it's a lot easier and more cost-effective to create voice services, particularly when you take the obvious next step and tie the VoiceXML interface to existing Web data.
An immediate benefit for mobile users is the rise of "voice portals," which allow you to dial in from a cell phone, ask for information from the Web (specially reformatted for voice presentation), and then have it read to you. Early services include BeVocal, Tellme, and HeyAnita, which are almost exclusively used by mobile callers on cell phones. These services are now incorporating the capability to pinpoint a user's calling location. As with the WAP-enabled services, many of the best applications of this technology may be location-based. "A user will be able to get directions or have his call transferred to the store he is trying to find," says Bryan Michael, product manager at BeVocal. "Initially we will have about 3 million locations listed, but eventually every small business in the U.S. can be part of this."
Voice may also help clear the way for another long-promised, long-delayed technology: unified messaging. The pitch has always been appealing: All your messages, including phone, fax, and e-mail, wind up in one in-box that can be accessed from anywhere.
The reality is that most of us don't have unified messaging, even though it's been around in one form or another for years. The first problem was that getting to e-mail messages over the phone was unbearable. There were too many menus and too many buttons to push. The second problem was that early services cost so much that only six-figure road warriors could think about eating that kind of expense on a regular basis.
In the past year, message access has become reliably voice-enabled (that is, the machine actually understands what is spoken) and the price has dropped significantly. "The latest generation of voice recognition is remarkable," says Alex Kurganov, chief technology officer at Webley. "It differentiates between high-pitched voices and low-pitched voices, voices on cell phones and voices on landline telephones, and it filters out non-spoken noise like static on the line, coughing, and so on."
Traditionally, unified messaging services have been targeted at individual users. But over the course of the coming year, look for companies like Webley to begin targeting small offices. They may develop their offerings by combining data and phone networks, and may even offer unlimited local-area phone service through the Internet.
If the spread of unified messaging into offices hinges on integrating Internet telephony, expect some delays. Right now, most people making phone calls through the Internet are hobbyists and impecunious college students. But eventually many businesses will have to take a close look at Internet telephony and the savings it promises.
Someday it may be possible to replace existing Private Bank Exchanges (PBXs) and cut ties with the phone companies in one swoop. Business would need to do nothing more than plug a telephone into their network to receive local-area and long-distance service, and high-speed Internet access.
"Survey after survey tells us that small businesses don't want to be in the telecommunications business," says Bill Rich, CEO of telephony provider VocalData. This, in a nutshell, is the promise of IP telephony: your telephone looks exactly the same, but supports more features at a lower cost. Oh, and one other thing: the price is predictable and low. Rich says we can expect "all-you-can-eat local calls, long distance, and Internet access for 70 to 90 dollars per desktop per month."
But the fact is that you probably can't pick up a receiver and order an IP telephone this very second. "We've talked about this for years but never really accomplished it," Rich admits. Many problems still must be solved, and the proper equipment is only now becoming more widely available (plenty of companies besides VocalData have introduced similar products). Rich says to expect that combined IP services will be introduced, at first, to businesses in multi-tenant office buildings. Others have to hope the eventual payoff is really worth the wait.