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E-commerce, Unplugged

The wireless workforce is coming -- but expect some bad chord changes along the way.

On a recent spring day, Jay Marks walked into a house he had been hired to sell for his employer, Arlington, Texas-based RE/MAX Associates. Marks, an associate broker at the global real estate company, immediately began doing what real estate brokers do: writing down the number and size of the rooms, and listing the property’s best features. He also took some photographs.

But instead of jotting these notations on paper and recording the photos on film, Marks entered the details on a notebook computer and stored the pictures on a digital camera. Before leaving the house, he used the high-speed wireless modem in his portable computer to send all the digitized information — including the snapshots — to online computer databases. Almost instantaneously, the listing was viewable by potential buyers. ”This technology is setting me apart from my competition,” claims Marks. ”With these tools, I’m able to do my job 30 percent faster.”

Admittedly, posting photos of somebody’s rumpus room in a third less time may not rate as a revolution in commerce. But make no mistake, Jay Marks is on to something — something big. While analysts and computer gurus have been trumpeting the virtues of mobile commerce for the past few years, it seems they’ve been blowing the wrong horn. Most have assumed that companies would generate huge revenues selling products and services over wireless devices.

Don’t count on it. ”Much of the hype surrounding M-commerce, from potential revenue to the number of people who will become M-commerce users, is just that — hype,” claims Ken Hyers, a senior analyst for the mobile-commerce information service at research firm Cahners In-Stat. Hyers says projections showing hundreds of billions of dollars generated from customer sales over the wireless Web are greatly overblown. Even in Japan, where 19 million citizens carry I-Mode phones, consumers still use these mobile Internet devices mostly to send messages and swap images of cultural icons.

Free downloads of Hello Kitty hardly qualifies M-commerce as a killer app. For the vast majority of corporations, the commerce in M-commerce will come from a different — and somewhat unexpected — constituency. For these companies, the real bottom-line wallop from wireless computing will come from their own employees.

The potential of a wireless workforce is truly remarkable. As Marks found, wireless remote access to the Internet enables employees to outperform competitors who are tethered to a network. With wireless connectivity, for example, workers can send and receive instant messages from practically anywhere on the planet. Instant messaging, experts note, is fast becoming a favorite tool to help salespeople close deals.

Some management teams, however, have M-commerce plans that go well beyond IM. Executives at dozens of companies are looking to make the entire range of corporate software and data available to their employees — from any remote location, on any device. In fact, in a recent survey of corporate managers conducted by Forrester Research, an overwhelming majority of the respondents said they expect their companies to begin rolling out wireless computing applications for their workers by 2003.

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