Thanks to new wireless technology, customer service rep Bhavna Shah is making Northwest Airlines Corp.'s (NWAC ) passengers just a little bit happier. Rather than spending her eight-hour shifts anchored behind a check-in counter at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, Shah now can roam from the counter to the curb with a seven-pound, wireless gadget mounted on her hip. That makes it a snap to help frantic passengers get flight information or to print out their boarding passes. One day, Shah checked in more than 60 passengers--and none of them had to wait a minute in line. "People always say, `Oh my God, I didn't know you could do this,"' Shah says. "I love to go to the customer. It helps to walk to them rather than have them wait for me."
Shah is just one example of how wireless technology will change the way we work in the years ahead. Over the next few years, a variety of new technologies that blend the mobility of cellular with the rich information of the Net will make their way into the mainstream. The services will have glitches--dropped calls and low battery life are sure to frustrate users. Even so, wireless systems will allow impressive advances, including listening to e-mail from the driver's seat during your commute and viewing color photos on your mobile phone. "Information-at-an-instant capability is going to quickly take over," says Steve G. Jones, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The biggest impact will come in the workplace. Already, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) has installed a wireless local area network (LAN) that lets workers connect to the corporate intranet--via radio waves--from any spot on its 265-acre Redmond (Wash.) campus. Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. (SBUX ) also is experimenting with wireless LANs that let customers browse the Net from a comfy couch. Besides wireless LANs, there's a wireless technology called telematics that auto makers are using to let drivers pull up information from their corporate networks on a screen in their cars. Cellular companies are installing technology that will let customers access the Net from their mobile phones at speeds six times those of today's computers. And something called fixed wireless is bringing broadband Net connections to businesses that have been beyond the reach of fiber-optic pipes in urban areas. All told, worldwide spending on wireless equipment could jump from $116 billion this year to about $265 billion in 2005.
SAVING TIME. Some businesses are finding the return on investment in wireless tough to resist. Consider CareGroup Healthcare System, a Boston-area hospital system with 3,000 doctors. At just one of the system's many clinics, officials spent $72,000, or about $6,000 per doctor, this year on wireless LAN gear and they expect a return of $1.1 million, or $90,000 per physician. How? The clinic has cut an average of two minutes off doctors' 20-minute patient visits by letting them use a wireless tablet to pull a patient's medical details from the central database. That translates into seeing more patients per day, accounting for $400,000 of the total return.
As new wireless technologies are introduced for everything from mobile phones to the neighborhood Starbucks, how we work will change. People will be able to leave the office, walk down the street, and use their phone or handheld device to open the same Power Point presentation they were viewing in the office. "This is not a pipe dream," says Nicholas Labun, a general manager at Motorola Inc. The workers who are cutting the cord are starting to see results.
By Roger O. Crockett