Seamless Mobility -- With Strings Attached
By Carlo Longino, Tue Jul 27 20:30:00 GMT 2004

Motorola's pumping up its vision for the mobile enterprise, but its use of closed systems and proprietary hardware doesn't bode well for its success.

The company announced the expected CN620 WLAN/GSM handset today as part of its "Enterprise Seamless Mobility solution," so called because it allows voice calls to be handed off from an in-office WLAN to the wide-area cellular network. The announcement will undoubtedly get a lot of play because of the huge interest in adding Wi-Fi to mobile handsets, but the devil's in the details.

Like a similar system NTT DoCoMo announced a few weeks ago, the Moto system, which was developed with Avaya and Proxim, requires proprietary hardware, and can't be used on just any WLAN. Outside the office, it falls back only on GPRS for data -- not that you could use it at a hotspot anyway, since it only works with the 802.11a standard. And if your business takes you outside the US, forget it -- the CN260 only functions in the GSM 850 and 1900 bands.

Of course this is an early effort, but it's unlikely to be a particularly successful one. VoWi-Fi sounds like a great idea for corporate environments, and it certainly has a lot of benefits -- but at what cost? Companies with existing 802.11b or g networks either have to implement an additional, incompatible wireless network, or scrap any existing investments and switch all their client devices over to 802.11a. Any potential savings in phone bills would be weighed down by the huge capital outlay required.

At the end of the day, this really is just a wireless PBX system. While it allows for fast data access over the in-office WLAN, it's got very little to offer the mobile worker, apart from the benefit of a single number and handoffs from the office network to the GSM net -- both of which aren't a concern to somebody using only a mobile handset for their work phone.

It's telling that the companies haven't signed up a carrier to go along with this service, as they don't have much to gain from it, and can better compete for corporate accounts by offering volume discounts and building on their own advantages -- a wide choice of handsets, international coverage, faster outside data and no pricey in-office equipment to buy.

Companies looking to mobilize their workforces would do much better to look to something like the new Wi-Fi/GSM iPaq that HP and T-Mobile announced Monday. A Moto exec tells Wi-Fi Net News that the iPaq "doesn't do VOIP except with a softphone." Frankly, who cares? The fact that the device can be used on any 802.11b hotspot and with a firm's existing equipment instantly makes it a better option. If companies are really concerned about cutting costs, they can load a Skype or Vonage softphone on there -- and use it both in the office and on other Wi-Fi networks.

Device manufacturers, just like carriers, are trying to figure out how to integrate Wi-Fi with wide-area mobile networks. It's obvious, even at this early stage, that the best solutions will be those built around openness, ease of use and compatibility with existing gear. Going with proprietary gear and closed systems isn't going to get anywhere.