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Look Ma! No Wires!

“Look Ma! No Wires!”

Wireless technology brings more benefits to business.

The next big business trend focuses on providing greater efficiency, convenience and capability — all from the palm of your hand. Welcome to the wireless era.

Imagine ordering products instantly while taking inventory. Or making manufacturing decisions in a remote location — all from your cell phone, PalmPilot or some other hand-held device. Much of this technology exists, but it’s cumbersome.

The trend toward wireless will pick up speed in the next five years. New and improved devices will not only receive data, but will also allow you to enter information with the touch of a key or the tone of your voice.

Last year an estimated 170 million people subscribed to wireless technology. That number is expected to jump to more than 1.3 billion by 2004, according to Cahners In-Stat Group. It’s already possible to check e-mail, stock quotes, plane departures and other Internet sites via phones — at rates comparable to cell-phone fees.

Now the competitive edge will go to companies that learn how to embrace wireless technology in their operations.

Wireless in retail

For retailers, wireless technology will help move products faster with less overhead. If a customer can’t find exactly what he or she needs in your inventory, you can go directly to the supplier and have it shipped direct, all with the touch of a button. The transaction can be completed within seconds. The process will also provide total recall by simultaneously filing a transaction report. That data will then be formatted, so you can identify market trends, customer preferences and inventory shortages.

Wireless will also alter the checkout process. Technology will enable identification of each product, complete with the price, as soon as the customer puts it in the cart or scans it with their personal device. The total will automatically be transmitted to the bank or credit-card company, which will grant approval and allow the customer to check out — without ever standing in line. Don’t worry about shoplifters: Global-positioning satellites will help you keep track of inventory until it’s paid for.

Action: Think about how wireless technology could boost sales, cut paperwork or help you manage inventory. Examine the divisions of your business that cause the greatest management stress or inefficiency. With this technology, it is possible to be everywhere at once because you can make decisions, sales and complete transactions from a remote location.

Example: If you sell a pair of tennis shoes, the technology will record the transaction and then evaluate existing stock. If inventory volume has dropped below a predetermined mark, the technology will alert you that it’s time to reorder. You can then place the order with the touch of a button or through a quick statement with voice-recognition technology (which is becoming a major component of the wireless revolution).

Think about the growth of wireless technology when you make purchasing decisions. Anything that makes wireless products easier to use, more fashionable or more fun is likely to be in demand. Designer carrying cases, notebooks, hands-free supplies or even games that consumers can access on their hand-held device will be hot in the next five years.

Warning: Don’t forget human contact. The upper hand will go to retailers that integrate the process between human and machine. Think about going wireless to process the sale, but having a customer service representative jump online for personal confirmation.

Technology trends

Integrated technology and universal applications are expected to drive the wireless market. Faster, smaller and easier-to-use are the goals when it comes to development of new products and services. The gold will go to the companies that allow multiple industries to interrelate, such as helping a retailer identify product price and immediately transferring that information to a credit-card company to complete the sale.

Business owners and consumers are more likely to adopt wireless if they don’t have to waste time laboriously typing an e-mail message on the pad of their cell phone. Find a better way, and the technology will be widely adopted.

To ensure that the same data can be transmitted over different wireless devices, industry standards are being developed. Motorola Inc., Ericsson and Siemens AG’s wireless units are already working together to develop an industry game standard. They intend to establish specifications for a mobile-game platform that can be used on any device in any location.

Action: Look at niche markets to determine how you can use technology and equipment to integrate services or create universal platforms. Car manufacturers are already using global-positioning satellite technology as an added feature to help drivers find their way. The financial-services industry also promises to be a big player in the wireless game. Technology that fosters cross-industry communications, such as the buyer and retailer or the retailer and manufacturer, will be widely used.

Also look at chips, display devices and protocols that can quickly transfer sound, video and data over a variety of systems. People accessing the Internet from a cell phone, for example, will not be able to handle the graphics or data programs accessed by a laptop. Technology that adapts that information to each individual user and device will be in demand. Any equipment, display devices or keyboard-navigation pieces that make it easier to view and input data on small units will also be popular.

Finally, if you’re an IT consultant, bone up on wireless capabilities so you can teach your clients. Few people understand the full range of options. Whoever can identify needs and uses for their clients will not have to worry about job security in the next decade.

Wireless manufacturing

Changing design, supply and production levels are expected to see dramatic shifts. Wireless applications can monitor production speeds, chemical levels, oil pressure and other variables while the equipment works. That information is then transmitted to the appropriate person, who can make adjustments from any location.

The equipment can also evaluate its work level and make adjustments based on preprogrammed data. The result is faster production, lower labor costs, fewer equipment failures and more consistent product development, which leads to lower manufacturing costs.

Wireless technology will even handle quality-control checks and transfer that data, as well as size, shape, volume and other product information to you immediately. Instead of visiting every plant personally, plant information will come to you.

Action: Think about how you can use this technology to streamline your decision-making processes and manufacturing capabilities. Consider investing in wireless equipment and training employees to use available technology to eliminate labor on the production line and equipment failures.

Experts recommend bringing in an IT consultant to help identify the most efficient use of wireless technology before investing in the equipment.

Writer: Polly Campbell