2003 Tech Buying Guide

Market Report

A growing number of companies are using wireless local area networks in their office settings. "The 802.11 [wireless LAN] standard is so dirt cheap," says Keith Waryas, an analyst at International Data Corp. "There's virtually no installation, no massive servers, no drilling through walls," he says.

Wi-Fi makes particular sense for the small business, which may move its people and equipment around to accommodate growth and thus need a more fluid networking solution. A small law office, for example, can raid the shelves at CompUSA for all the networking products it needs. However, once a company reaches 10 users or more and uses more than one server, it may be time to call in the services of a value-added reseller (VAR) such as IBM or Accenture for tech support, he says.

Wi-Fi has expanded its reach well beyond the walls of the office. Hot spots, or wireless on-ramps to the Internet, are popping up in very public places like Starbucks, which partners with T-Mobile to offer a $70 monthly flat-access card. (Individual visits cost $7 to $8.) AT&T, Intel, and IBM recently joined forces to form wireless networks to provide connectivity at more than 20,000 sites -- such as hotels, campuses, and other businesses -- in 50 major U.S. cities.

Even with the push toward public hot spots, those efforts will "go cold" in the next couple of years, says Bob Egan, president and founder of research firm Mobile Competency. "The business plan does not pay out," he says. He believes the real value of Wi-Fi, once security concerns are resolved, will be in private settings.

An expanding office environment looking for a Wi-Fi setup needs the type of network that will grow along with it. The 3Com OfficeConnect 11 Mbps Wireless Cable/DSL Router Starter Kit [$240; www.3com.com] includes a cable/DSL gateway that, with optional cards, can support up to 32 wireless users spread out to a distance of 300 feet.

Technophobes will find that the Microsoft Broadband Networking Wireless Base Station MN-500 [$139; www.microsoft.com] requires little downtime or sweat. Its setup wizard gets you sharing your broadband Net connection, files, and printers easily.

If your wireless demands include sending full-motion videos and other intensive multimedia fast, Belkin [ www.belkin.com] offers an array of wireless networking products to build super-fast networks. Mix and match gateways ($150), notebook and desktop cards ($75-100), and access points ($175) to build a custom network.

What to Ask

  • How much will I spend on access?
  • Does my data require enhanced security?
  • Which PC's, handhelds, and laptops complement my wireless strategy?
  • Do I send enough image-based data to require high-speed service?

Case In Point

Dan Bean
Music Channels, LLC

THE NEED: "I travel all over the country," says Dan Bean, who runs an Internet- and radio-based entertainment company out of Newcastle, Wash., produces Broadway plays, and handles corporate promotions. Bean looked to Wi-Fi alternatives to support his mobile lifestyle.

THE SOLUTION: A Winbook X1 laptop, a Compaq wireless modem, and T-Mobile wireless service. "I've used it everywhere, in Chicago, New York, L.A., and Vegas. I've had meetings with big shots at Starbucks," he says.

FEATURES CONSIDERED: Wireless coverage of the cities and locations that he most frequents was critical, as was the number of locations that he could "pop into" to work. Luckily, Starbucks had already secured prime real estate. "A guy I was working with had Wi-Fi in his laptop and showed it to me," says Bean, who admits it was love at first sight. "I set up T-Mobile from my cell phone while I was sitting with him at a Starbucks," he says. "It took all of 10 minutes."

Only 16% of Inc.com poll respondents feel wireless services are "critical" right now.*

NEXT TIME: Pleased with his foray into Wi-Fi, Bean has no regrets. "This is a real no-brainer, everyone should do it," he says.

JUSTIFYING THE COST: "It has saved a lot of miles on my car and a lot of miles on me," says Bean, and opened up a venue for making presentations to a broader audience that might not have high-speed access at their location.

DON'T FORGET TO ASK: "People should be sure they can use [Wi-Fi service] wherever they go most frequently."

*Results from "What's Your Technology Plan," an Inc.com technology strategies poll conducted between February 11 and 21, 2003.

2003 Tech Buying Guide
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