of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 27, No. 5              June / July 2001

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Wireless Ways: Business and Personal Applications of Wireless Technology

by Joe Chung

Here is a little bit of the history of Art Technology Group (ATG) as it regards, or intersects, the wireless arena. We are an e-commerce and customer management company. We sell to blue chip customers like Procter and Gamble, General Motors and Kodak. Retailers that use our products include J.Crew, Kmart and Bluelight.com. We've transformed the company since ATG started in 1991 as a consulting company with two employees, Jade Seng and myself. We developed into a boutique technology design company for a while. For a long time it was my job to have a lot of gadgets attached to various parts of my body. Sometime around 1995 we suddenly found that all of our work was Web work. The company employed about 11 people then; half technologists, half programmers, and primarily from MIT. I had been at the Media Lab for five years and was in the Computer Science Undergraduate Program for five years before that. I actually managed to rack up 10 years at MIT before starting this company. I took a bunch of my pals with me from the engineering group, and we also built a great design group. In 1994 we were one of few companies in the world that had a graphic designer, programmers and interface designers who knew how to talk to each other and were the right mix to be a Web company.

Eventually, in what seemed like an inexplicable move, instead of turning into a big Web consultant company, like Razorfish, we decided to become a software company instead. There were many reasons behind this decision. We felt we'd have more impact in the world, which had always been our main goal, by producing things. We've continued developing as an enterprise software company and changed our focus over time.

ATG and the Shiattday Advertising Project: An Early Experiment with the Virtual Office

Our earlier thinking was about how technology affects our living space, including your workspace. The seminal project that we were involved with in 1994, the pre-Web days, was a concept design and prototype we did for Shiattday Advertising, the agency that did the Apple Macintosh 1984 ads. Jay Shiatt, who ran Shiatttday Advertising, was very interested in transforming the workspace. He had this extremely radical idea, which was to get rid of any personal office and go to a "virtual office" model. The idea was very much in vogue at the time, but he really was one of the pioneers in this field. That was one of the great things about being an ad agency. People get fired all the time; if you lost the account, you lost your job. People were constantly coming and going, especially at that time. So Jay made several declarations:

  • No one has an office. You have a locker, and you can put a picture of yourself on the front of the locker so that you remember who you are.
  • We're going to give everyone laptops and cordless phones and you can find your own place to work.
  • All of your stuff will be the electronic world.

This was pre-Web. In many ways it didn't work, because there was a certain work environment that people needed. But it was fascinating for us.

Our job in that project was to design this virtual environment. We spent a lot time thinking about what it means to no longer have an office or be in a physical space, but instead to be able to circulate around freely. They didn't have wireless – the LANs weren't good enough back then – but Ethernet was available everywhere. Half of the Shiattday workforce at any given time was not in the office. How do you support a virtual community?

One of the things that came out of that experience for me was that I really started thinking about what some of these wireless devices were going to be like and what it would mean to have them. Around the time we did the Shiatttday project, we weren't quite big enough yet to have an Information Technology department. This meant that our engineers, all of whom had bachelors and doctorate degrees from MIT, managed our own network services. We did a lot of hacking. We had our pagers set up so we'd get all our e-mail and messages telling us if we had voice mail. At the time, two-way pagers were huge and very expensive. It was tantalizing, though, to imagine sitting at a café, opening your laptop and checking your e-mail.

Wireless and Me

About that time, the company grew from 30 to 100 employees in one year. We hit a rapid growth stage. We were so enamored with the idea of laptop mobility that we standardized it for all ATG employees. We also made laptops, as opposed to desktop computers, the standard issue for most of our employees. Unfortunately, those laptops were very fragile. The average machine would last about six months before it would come back in pieces.

The CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data or "wireless IP") modem device was an eye-opener for me. This technology is still widely used today and is the same technology the Palm VII is based on. It uses the old analog network but in packet form: a bizarre hybrid. With the Palm VII out there, people are using CDPD modems fairly often. In the midst of all the digital networks being rolled out that can theoretically handle wireless data much better, vendors are still marketing the CDPD. The problem with this modem is that it is unreliable and slow. The baud is 9600 at best. If you are a gadget geek, you can make it work, but it's not good for ordinary consumers.

One of the things I had to do when I got this technology was to subscribe to two services, one from AT&T and one from Bell Atlantic. Bell Atlantic covered the local service and AT&T covered me nationally, in very tiny pockets. What they don't tell you when they show you the coverage maps is that the charge for using this service outside your home area is $.05 per kilobyte. The average picture on the Web is 50k, so you can easily spend thousands of dollars. Nonetheless, I was able to take advantage of that device right around the time we took ATG public in July 1999. In case anyone wonders what an IPO road show is like, let me put it this way: Road shows are designed to be maximally convenient to the investor and, therefore, maximally inconvenient for the person hocking the stock. You get up at about six in the morning and get pushed into a limo, bleary eyed, with a suit on. You give the same presentation again and again. It's mind numbing, but you have to remain enthusiastic.

At the time of the IPO, back when Internet companies were not supposed to make money, we came dangerously close to making a profit, and we decided we would spend some money on incentive programs. We bought everyone we knew a Palm Pilot. I ended up with another thing to carry around with me.

When I returned from this road show, I was excited by the idea that you could be connected anywhere – your house, your office, even a conference room. Even if you weren't part of a meeting, you could sit in the back and listen in while being productive. A lot of that was inspired by MIT. My wife is a professor at the MIT Media Lab. They put in the Lucent network, and it was so great that we had one installed in our house. I live in a five-story brownstone, so wireless was a practical option. Running wire in a house like that is very difficult and very expensive. We realized that with wireless, we could be anywhere we wanted, untethered.

Wireless and ATG

Between having the CDPD modem on the road and in my home, I decided that ATG on a whole should do wireless. Doing wireless requires learning how to work with that tool so that it is not a detriment. Like most Internet companies, we have a completely open floor plan, and not a single employee at ATG has an office. The office space has become more like a library; it's actually kind of quiet. People have to learn not to talk loudly. When you need to have a conversation, you step out of the office and into a conference room. The wireless network is very similar. Once you have a wireless device, it's rude to sit and check your e-mail during a one-on-one interview, instead of paying attention. You have to learn a new social skill – when it's acceptable to have your laptop out and when it's not.

An unintended side effect was that by coupling the wireless network with DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), suddenly any ATG employee could go into any ATG office in the world and connect to the network. It's just incredible. The mobility it gives us, as a workforce, is astounding. It's hard to describe if you're not doing a great deal of traveling. We have an extremely mobile workforce. We have 300 employees at any given time who are not in their native offices. It has come to the point that since we have gone wireless, we couldn't possibly go back.

Issues with Wireless

One of the problems with wireless is bandwidth. It's still a big problem. Now, I have a Startak WAP-enabled phone. It comes with a cable, and if you have the right kind of laptop with the old 9-pin serial port, you can be online. The bandwidth is now 14,400, a lot better than the 9600 with the CDPD modem. It's actually relatively reliable if you're on the digital network. It even works in a car. If you don't have the right cable because you have a newer laptop, you need a USB serial converter.

    [At this point in the live presentation, the speaker demonstrated the labor-intensive connection method and multiple connectors required to link a Startak phone to a Palm Pilot. He then followed-up with a wristwatch camera demonstration, including taking a photo.]

But bandwidth is one of the big issues. You need to turn off all image loading and set your mail browser to only download the first 10k of a message, but it's great. For the first time, with my Palm Pilot, I can do e-mail and talk at the same time. You can also do that with your laptop, which is even more useful. I think there is a new generation of this technology, CDMA or possibly GSM technology, that will let you just plug a card straight in, which is really the point.

One of the interesting things is that, although this cable comes with the phone we give out to all ATG employees, there are actually only four or five us who have gone to the trouble to make it work. I draw the parallel to the infrared devices on your laptop; I'm sure that there are only a small number of people who actually use them. The configuration is very difficult for these devices, so convenience is a big deal.

The bandwidth issue is being solved theoretically by the 3G (Third Generation) initiative – UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications Services) – which is coming out in every country but the United States. It will happen over time. Then we will really have to deal with the double-edged sword – always being available with these devices – and put it to the test. These devices will always be on unless you physically turn them off, and the bandwidth will be very high.

One of the other big things out there is going to be display. This is a plug for a company called Microdisplay, founded by some MIT people. One of the problems with displays is that they are expensive, and they consume a lot of power. Microdisplay has come up with a liquid crystal-on-silicon display. It's very small and very cheap. The cost of silicon is proportional to its size. This is an 800x600 500/1-contrast display, a high quality display, and it costs $25 to manufacture in quantities of 10,000 per month. The trick is that with some clever optics, you can embed it into a phone or some other device. To make it usable, you have to hold it up to your eye. Display technologies will be the next big nut to crack. It's conceivable for the first time to have the graphic ability of a desktop computer available in something you stick in your pocket.

What it really comes down to is convenience. That's what is really missing. A great example is that, although phone wires' characteristics are standardized across the globe, what's not standardized is the plug required to put those phone wires into the network. Right now, it's a disaster, and you need many adapters. What is really holding wireless back isn't the technology or the bandwidth (it's usable) but the idea that it's not seamless, or natural, or stylish to use these technologies. They're not a part of the environment and that's the big thing to crack for this technology to move forward.

Conclusion

ATG is a company with about 850 people, and we are very committed to this technology. I can see what the potential is, and I can see this double-edged sword of being available all the time being a problem. But if you use wireless correctly and build some ethics around it, and you understand how to turn it off and ignore it, suddenly you realize that you have a lot of control. Even though people can get a message to you, you may not want to read it or respond right away. You can exert your personality about how responsive you're going to be. It's remarkably freeing. I can determine how accessible I want to be, and sometimes that's not accessible at all.

Joe Chung is chief technology officer at Art Technology Group (www.atg.com). He can be reached by mail at 25 First Street, Second Floor, Cambridge, MA 02141; by phone at 617/386-1000; or by fax at 617/386-1111.

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