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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 20:17 GMT
Wi-fi promises internet shake-up
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Men using wi-fi
Businesses are expected to be big users of wi-fi
There is a good reason why the biggest wi-fi zones in the UK are in the City of London and Canary Wharf, with widespread wireless access being touted as the force behind the net's next wave of innovation.

The first wave centred around the dotcom boom of the late 1990s when lucrative domains were snapped up, fledgling web businesses were established and everyone got dizzy on the potential of this new medium.

Some of that potential is starting to be seen now in what is being called Web 2.0.

This takes as its starting point the basic infrastructure of the net and the communities forming on it, and marries both with innovative thinking about what to do with these raw materials.

So far, it is generating a huge number of start-ups such as PodBop, which gives you podcasts of bands coming to your home town. Websites such as TechCrunch and others are cataloguing these new firms.

Building blocks

What all these start-ups assume is that users are never offline.

This is where wi-fi comes in. It is only when wireless net access is everywhere that these companies can even exist.

Wi-fi everywhere will mean staff not having to commute unless they want or need to. It lets staff work where they need or want to
Richard Hall, Avanade

But, say experts, this freedom to connect will not just make it possible for lots of new companies to get going. It could also have a profound effect on the way companies are run and what they have to do to ensure they keep their customers.

Philippe Courtot, a Silicon Valley veteran and founder of online security firm Qualys, says the history of how companies develop is intimately tied to the computer technologies they have at their disposal.

In the days of mainframes, there was nothing firms could do but have their staff sat at their desk using centrally held programs.

The advent of personal computers revolutionised office work and introduced some freedom into the way firms operated - though workers largely had to sit at a desk to use the software loaded on the machine in front of them.

Mr Courtot thinks that wi-fi everywhere takes this freedom to its ultimate endpoint.

No longer do workers have to sit at a desk to get at the programs they need to do their job. Any computer in any place will do as long as it can get access to the net. Every program they use is always available and is maintained by someone else.

In this scenario, software becomes a service that people use rather than something they install. The computer is no longer important. It is all about what you are doing with it.

Many Web 2.0 companies are starting to offer basic computer applications such as word processors, calendars and spreadsheets online, unthinkable without that constant access.

But the business world still had some way to go to fully embrace these changes, said Richard Hall, chief technology officer at hi-tech integrator Avanade.

"We're still in a 19th Century world which sees the means of production as bolted to the floor and you had to sit in front of it," he said.

Journey's end

Wi-fi everywhere does not just make a big difference to the way that firms operate internally. It also means their customers are no longer tied to them for lack of easy to reach alternatives, with competitors just a click away.

Woman using credit card, Creatas
Wi-fi could mean we change suppliers like we do credit cards
Chris Boorman, vice president of marketing for, which offers its programs as a net-based service, said he could foresee a day when it was as easy to switch between companies as it was between credit cards today.

Many people regularly move their credit card bills around to chase the lowest interest rates. The same could happen in the business world as customers hop to where they get a better deal.

But the change ushered in by ubiquitous access to the net does not stop with the business.

"We are still thinking about 'going online' and 'using' the web," said Mr Hall from Avanade. "But these will be distinctions that will go away.

"Wi-fi everywhere will mean staff not having to commute unless they want or need to," he said. "It lets staff work where they need or want to.

"That's going to be a huge shift in the fabric of society," he said.

But this shift to an always-on, always-connected world may bring with it some unwanted effects.

The Blackberry gave a taste of what was to come, said Mr Boorman, as using one meant never being out of touch with your office.

"The big problem from a social point of view is learning when to turn it off," he said. "It's about choosing when you are contactable."

See how wi-fi zones work

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