Ern Worthman,
Editorial Director

I'm from the pager generation. You know, the time before cell phones and computers. The time when you could go on the road and if someone needed you, all you got was an annoying beep telling you to look for a pay phone.

These were simpler times, when you could always say you didn't get the page. Nowadays you get nailed to a three-meter circle at the exact moment in time by your LBS/GPS-enabled phone/PDA/laptop. My, how times have changed, even from a few short years ago (a couple of centuries in technology years), when traveling employees had a cell phone for talking and a laptop for dial-up.

Not today. Today, the landscape is one of complex and overlapping choices and technologies with more on the way almost every day. The offerings seem endless. There are decisions to be made regarding devices, carrier contracts, performance and reach — with all the major technologies offering moving targets to boot.

Just when you though it was safe to go back in the Wi-Fi wireless LANs and cellular data waters (which are steadily gaining speed), along comes a couple of new major emerging options that use OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing).

From a metaphorical perspective, one could liken it to a boxing competition. In one ring (the 3G ring), in one corner, is 3G cellular data services EV-DO. In the opposing corner is UMTS, a step in the migration path of GSM. EV-DO offers coverage across large areas (MANs/WANs), though they can vary from one location to the next, utilizing CDMA technology. But hold onto your techno-hat; the next offering of EV-DO, called Revision A, is expected to significantly boost upstream speed. Advantage: EV-DO.

GSM rollouts will use a new version of the technology, called HSDPA, which supposedly will match the average speed of EV-DO. But UMTS has a big plus that EV-DO doesn't; it carries both voice and data (and is more prolific outside of the U.S.). Advantage: GSM.

As if all of this isn't convoluted enough, in another ring, in one corner, in training, is mobile WiMAX, a variant of fixed WiMAX. Mobile WiMAX is expected to emerge in standard form later this year. Its major attraction is its ability to act as both an access point and a client, promising virtually unlimited wireless access in major metropolitan areas. In the other corner, a new and improved contender stands ready to do battle — FLASH-OFDM (Fast Low-latency Access with Seamless Handoff-OFDM). It is designed to deliver speeds in the same range as mobile WiMAX and can be used in a wide range of frequency bands.

All of these are in line to take a shot at the long standing champion: Wi-Fi. You know, the technology is supposed to offer up to 54 Mb/s (or more, using various compression or sharing schemes), but the reality is that actual throughput is rarely out of the single Mb/s. There is work to finalize the IEEE 802.11n specification, which promises to boost speeds to about 100 Mb/s and improve range, but linear prediction tells me that we'd be lucky to see 20 to 30 Mb/s, after all is said and done. I have to assume any new technologies would suffer from the same reality issues and, unfortunately, we all know there will be no one ubiquitous platform.

So what's a mother to do?

Well, most of us that are on the bleeding edge agree that wide area wireless is likely to be the best long-term solution. But which technology? By the time mobile WiMAX is widely available, it won't have a big edge in performance or price over 3G. Is GSM- or CDMA-based technology the best overall? And don't forget things like VoWi-Fi and VoIP.

This proliferation of technology presents a real dilemma for corporate IT departments. Few have the expertise to understand these technologies themselves, but even worse, no one will know what the best option is until it is fully deployed. Every IT manager sits in fear of choosing a technology and guessing wrong: the cost of a bad decision here can mean big bucks wasted.

Well, so much for the theory that technology advances convenience. The fact is that technology, wireless and otherwise, can advance convenience, but only in cooperative mode. We saw the first battle of the giants with the Sony-Betamax wars. Then came Windows and OS2/Unix/MAC. Trouble is, we still haven't learned on a local, even less, global scale — we're getting better, but not fast enough.

For example, I have poor GSM coverage and live in Colorado. I need GSM for overseas travel, but CDMA is more prevalent here in the west. Actually, I've had less than stellar performance from GSM anywhere in this country, when compared to CDMA.

For the enterprise, my problem is upped by orders of magnitude. Not just voice, but data... and not just data but what kind of data? And, data only or voice/data networks? Add to that VPN requirements, multiple OSs, mixed hardware and software and many other individual quirks and one can see the problems get ugly in a hurry.

It's time for mass integration... to paraphrase Rodney King's infamous statement, "'bout time technology started to get along."