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Workplaces fit for the future?

With the advent of smar t phones the office as we know it will undergo significant changes and may disappear altogether

Few people could deny the impact of the Internet on the way we conduct business, but what effect will it have on architects and architecture? To date it has provided an information resource and, for those practices with extranets, it has automated project management and spelt the demise of paper for drawings and plans. But the Internet is set to change much more, as it moves from the fixed world to the wireless.

According to Nokia, the growth in fixed Internet usage is forecast to grow by at least 40 per cent year on year to approximately 800 million users by 2004. The major grow th area, however, is forecast to be in mobile access to the Internet, for people who need to keep in touch while on-themove inside or outside a building.

'The combination of wireless and Internet technology will lead to a computing revolution that dwarfs the one initiated by the PC, ' predicts the Economist magazine. This view is shared by Kev in Kel ly, execut ive editor of Wired magazine, who says 'The wireless Internet will be bigger than the wired Internet'.

Assumptions about the nature of work, retail and leisure and where these activities take place are about to be turned upside down.

'Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, ' explains Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital. 'If instead of going to work by driving my atoms into town, I log into my office and do my work electronically, exactly where is my workplace?'

A good question indeed.Digital transmission makes no distinction between 'voice' and 'data'; whether we are speaking, looking or sending makes no difference.

This lack of differentiation will blur the boundaries between 'office based activities', work on the move, even retail and leisure.

Instead of location, read locate. The office of today is the centre of information and resources, of technology and communications. Tomorrow the Internet service provider will be your switchboard and the browser your desktop, through which all information and knowledge will be accessible at any time and any place. Rather than bricks and mortar representing your location through postal address, telephone and fax, your location will become virtual as electronic mail and 'unified messaging' make physical location irrelevant.

Computers continue to advance, with falling prices and shrinking components.

What was the domain of the desktop until recently can now fit into a briefcase and will soon sit in the pocket. In the future it will be wearable. It will also become intelligent: as you walk into a meeting you will exchange an electronic business card with everyone present, or in a retail environment it will allow the download of audio or video clips for sampling.Your personal digital assistant (PDA) will move from being just a productivity tool to a full entertainment device and, what is more, it will be constantly connected to the web with no wires.

Technologies now exist to fulfil this scenario. Bluetooth, the first global standard for wireless, has been agreed by most of the world's leading technology companies, led by 3COM, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Toshiba and Ericsson. This will allow any Bluetooth-enabled device to 'share' data within a 10m range, through an embedded radio link.Bluetooth will be built in to new computers, phones, digital cameras and many other devices from early next year, introducing the concept of the PAN - a personal area network that can be configured instantly anywhere.

Bluetooth will be followed by 3G (third generation) or smart phones being developed to put the Internet in your pocket.

Based on a new technology Universal Mobile Tele- communications Standard (UMTS), these devices combine digital mobile phone with handheld PDA to give 'mobile multimedia': a telephone, PDA, web browser and even video conferencing within a handheld unit. They will use a new standard, the Wireless Application Protocol (WA P ) and a new language, WML (the wireless version of HTML). Smart phones will introduce smart work for knowledgebased professionals who will become place independent, and smart leisure for infotainment experiences and interactive sessions.

These technologies place a new emphasis on the built environment as a collection of disparate settings that can be used for connectivity as and when needed. Some workstations will still be within space leased by a company; but many will be in new spaces from Internet cafes to airport lounges. These places will offer choice and flexibility to an increasingly nomadic workforce that can control its working environment and readdress its work/life balance.

The trends extend to other functions.

The 'death of distance' means that people in remote locations can handle processdriven tasks that were once supervised in the office. Even call centres (or their new incarnation 'customer interaction centres') can become virtual as technology allows routing of enquiries to workers at home or elsewhere.

It is clear that within buildings, planning and design, furniture and facilities management will all undergo significant changes.What was once a 'separate function' will now drive development as technology becomes embedded within furniture or the building fabric itself.

The Internet is 'transforming' corporate architecture, according to the magazine Red Herring.

'Businesses that were originally built like skyscrapers - all hierarchical command and control - are now recreating themselves as tent villages.'

Perhaps this is the start of a new trend in building design for techno savvy nomads and refugees?

Philip Ross is editor at UNWIRED. and a director of Cordless Consultants, specialist in new technology for the built environment.Tel 020 7625 2001

THE WIRELESS LEXICON

Unified messaging is the convergence of different message types into one 'unified' in box. In the future you will no longer have separate faxes, e-mails and voicemails sent to different machines in different media - all will be digital and appear together.

Personal digital assistants or PDAs are set to become the next frontier of technology as the computer continues its transition from the mainframe, to the desktop, laptop and now the palm top.

PDAs in effect sit in the pocket and provide access to all Microsoft Office applications from e-mail to Word and Excel as well as diaries and address books.

Smart phones combine today's mobile phone with a PDA to create a so-called smart device. The smart phones will begin to use new technology to become wireless Internet devices.

WAP or wireless application protocol is the current fad, but in all likelihood an interim solution.

Essentially WAP is software to allow devices with small screens - such as a mobile phone - to access complex information such as websites.

UMTS or Universal Mobile Telecommunication Standard is the 'Third Generation' of mobile phone which will create the wireless Internet. Auctions in UK earlier this year netted the government a staggering £22.5 billion for the five UMTS licences. Services are forecast to launch in 2003.

PUBLICATIONS

'Office design, towards the 1990s'. AJ 5.4.89

'No desk to call your own'. AJ 21.10.92

'The work aesthetic at the Addison Wesley Longman HQ, Harlow'. AJ 30.5.96

'Modernising government offices . . . or just pacifying staff '. AJ 29.6.00

'Creative Angle'. AJ 7.7.00. A case study of the Computer Associates' headquarters

Office Space Planning: Designing for Tomorrow's Workplace. Alexi Marmot & Joanna Eley, McGraw-Hill 2000.'This book', the preface says, 'is for office workers whose work environment needs constant vigilance to help improve their working lives'. It deals with issues such as whether 'buildings make you sick', and 're-engineering space allocation'.

The Creative Office. Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross, Laurence King,1999. Ross and Myerson examine the latest in office design and technologies, focusing on the interactive as well as the mainstream. It includes sections on social spaces, flexibility and mobility in a office framework.

Great Expectations: the creative industries in the New Economy. James Heartfield, Design Agenda (www. designagenda. org. uk). A pamphlet which takes up the reality of the creative industries and challenges the accepted idea that straightforward faith in design is the way forward.

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