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PART ONE: THE WIRELESS OFFICE

Moving forward on the wireless office Add to ...

At Research In Motion Ltd.'s recent BlackBerry World conference in Florida, one of the most popular features of the show wasn't a product or a brand-new smart phone, it was a simple printing service.

Well, maybe not that simple. Hewlett-Packard Co., the computer hardware giant, set up a number of printers throughout the conference centre to show off a brand new service from the company that lets users send documents wirelessly from their BlackBerrys to their printers over a secure network. The service essentially takes the problem of proximity out of the printing task.

The reason HP was so keen to push the new technology is because, increasingly, businesses are taking the wires out of their offices. The ability to work from anywhere has become a major selling point, not only to companies with branches all over the world, but to small and medium-sized businesses, too.

In a way, the era of the wireless office kicked off several years ago, thanks in large part to the popularity of the BlackBerry and other mobile devices that let employees take certain office tasks - most notably, e-mail - around with them.

But for most small and medium-sized businesses, the majority of work still takes place at work. Employees may have access to laptops or smart phones, but their primary work-related tasks are still done on a desktop at the office, and the people they collaborate with most often are the ones in close physical proximity.

Wireless office tools and services are designed to make that physical proximity irrelevant. Such tools include virtual collaboration software that lets users work with one another in real-time over the Web or a private network.

Indeed, a number of companies have recently come out with virtual whiteboards that combine video-conferencing software with drawing and document-sharing tools. In effect, such tools are meant to recreate the boardroom meeting, regardless of the participants' location.

The same shift is happening in a number of other areas. For example, a number of handset manufacturers are introducing tools that let users "push" an incoming phone call to any number of other lines. As such, a user who receives a call on his or her office line can answer that call remotely from his or her smart phone or other device.

The growth of cloud computing and the increasing speed of Web connections have also made it largely possible to access corporate files and software remotely from just about anywhere, rather than downloading the data on work desktops and laptops.

Indeed, one of the most rapidly growing areas in the business software world right now centres on the development of software that makes the access of that data secure and seamless.

For most small- and medium-sized businesses, there are several reasons to consider going wireless.

For one thing, a significant amount of office work doesn't actually require an office, and many employees prefer to do their jobs from home or other locations. Other employees, who may be constantly travelling, have no choice. A wireless office means such off-site work is no longer a compromise.

However. there are several reasons why some business owners are reluctant to go wireless.

Perhaps the most significant one is cost. Collaboration software, wireless printing, Internet-based phone services and similar tools can still be very expensive for some companies, and, in some cases, may also entail a complete overhaul of the company's existing infrastructure, such as its phone system.

There are also concerns about just how secure a wireless office is. As with cloud computing, some business owners aren't yet convinced that the advantages of routing corporate data through the Internet are worth the risks.

That's why companies such as HP have gone to great lengths to highlight the security features built into their wireless printing tools (for example, password protection to ensure only the person who sends a document to a printer can then retrieve it).

But ultimately, some business owners may still be on the fence as to exactly how much of a productivity boost a wireless office can provide. The ability to easily host meetings with colleagues around the globe or gain access to company software from anywhere may be a boon to large multinational corporations, but smaller businesses will need to be convinced they'll also see productivity gains on a smaller scale before they invest heavily in overhauling the traditional office environment.

The series continues next Monday. Other Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

 

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