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Able and wireless

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Wireless technology is still not perfect, but is making major inroads in architects' offices and practices

A few months ago there was a flurry of excitement at the announcement of the new IEE 802.3af standard. It promised liberation from the power socket because it was about how power for peripherals and even laptops would come via your existing Ethernet network cable. It sounds like a terrific idea.

But people soon woke up to exactly how badly timed the announcement was. Because network cabling is on its way out. The new office, including the architectural office, is almost certainly going to be a wireless, non-access-floor place. The only cables to be seen will be carrying 230V for essential things such as lighting - and older, mains-powered computer devices. And even these are short-term issues.

The future ubiquity of wireless has been reinforced by Intel's introduction in March of the Centrino chipset for laptops and tablets. Among other things, such as longer battery life, it involves built-in wireless technology.

It is reckoned that by the end of the year about 35 per cent of all laptops sold will be equipped with built-in wireless. Currently you plug a PCMCIA wireless LAN card or USB device into your laptop.

So things are on the move. According to Sam Jacob, maverick art/architecture practice FAT will go wireless when it next moves office, maybe in six months.He says: 'We use Apples so we will be using the Airport access point. We would be doing it not so much for hot-desking reasons but because the cables get in a tangle.

We'll do it because there won't be loads of wires.'

Paul Rynsard of Feilden & Mawson says the practice will be moving its London office in a couple of years and has an earlier refurbishment slated soon for the Norwich office. 'We are taking advice about whether it's going to be wireless, ' he said. 'The real issue is actually what is the cost of not having it. My gut reaction is that we will go wireless because you have mobility - not least in the office environment. You don't get nailed facing the wall just because that's where the wiring is located.'

So IEE 802.3af is a really interesting idea, but if there are going to be wireless cards plugged into computers and thus no Ethernet cables, it is probably dead in the water. Make that possibly, rather than probably, because wireless has its limitations.

Wireless is slower than cable - that is to say the currently popular IEE 802.11b standard, which delivers data at rates of up to 11Mbps at a range of up to 45m. But in the shops this week you can buy versions of the new 802.11g (the suffix 'g' is the one to watch) standard whose top transfer rate is 54Mbps. This is quite fast but poor by cable standards. You have, incidentally, to take the maximum possible speeds with a grain of salt;

they are not all that good an indication of the actual speed of data transfer, which will be considerably less in real life. But there is a difference. Feilden Clegg Bradley architect George Samios says that it isn't really noticeable with emailing and with moving small files around. But it is an issue with large drawing files.

Feilden Clegg Bradley has wireless access points in both its Bath and London offices. Samios says: 'Wireless is proving useful for people who have laptops because they aren't tied to one desk. It is also useful for people moving between the offices because they can arrive in London, switch on their laptops and be instantly on the London network.'

The Feilden Clegg Bradley approach of some staff using wireless laptops with the rest of the staff working as relatively immobile project teams is one that was pioneered, as you might expect, by DEGW. It has long since instituted hot desking for about a third of its staff. Even before installing a wireless network, founding partners Frank Duffy and John Worthington had, says Graham Parsey, their own dedicated desks but have never had their own offices.Now they don't even have, or need, desks.

Parsey explains that when the practice refurbished its King's Cross offices five or six years ago, it ripped out obsolete network cabling from the raised floors and replaced only some of it - for relatively immobile people working on projects and CAD.

Parsey says: 'Around a third of us are mobile within the office because we have DECT phones and wireless laptops connected to the nearest wireless access point.' Converting to wireless was not a special problem. Parsey says: 'The work style of the office is very mobile anyway, and so wireless is a natural progression. We acknowledged that only a third of our time was spent in the office and that if you owned a desk you would spend even less than that time at it. The changeover hasn't really created any problems. You have to appreciate that people who are making the change are making it anyway - and increasingly it's the way our clients work.'

Not far away in Euston, Steelcase, the office systems company, has worked wirelessly in the old station clearing house since 1998. Most of its 50-plus staff are sales people and are away from the office a great deal. Steelcase's procedure is a bit more formal:

any one of the salespeople coming into the office is issued with a DECT phone and a wireless LAN card to plug into their laptops. They sit wherever there is desk space and plug their laptops into the mains. A couple of permanent staff have cabled computers, and there are four other cabled computers in the company's internet cafe, which is used by visitors. Printers use infra-red connections (un-cabled but not wireless) and can be used by both laptops and palmtops. Needless to say, much of the wide Steelcase range reflects the fact that future cabling is about to be largely a mains-supply issue.

Steelcase's Joanna Crellin says: 'Naturally we're very focused on new ways of working. Going wireless calls for the right organisational culture and it happens that wireless works very well for us. There are guaranteed business returns from a workforce that can work better because they are more flexible. Employees can balance privacy, communicate better and succeed in teamwork with this new technology. In short, if your organisational structure supports these working practices, wireless is a sound investment.'

Crellin says that Steelcase's experience is that, although wireless eliminates the cost of cabling, it is still quite expensive - although, she says 'reconfiguration costs are minimised because you don't need to re-lay the network cables each time you face an office move'. In addition, it is unlikely that all 50 staff will turn up at base all at the same time - so it was possible to buy fewer wireless LAN cards.

One issue still clouds the introduction of wireless for many organisations. It is security. Last year much was made of wardriving and warchalking, which suggested the secrets of our financial empire were up for grabs to anyone with a converted Pringles can aerial and a laptop. It may be overly cynical to note that the problem was highlighted by computer security specialists whose wardriving around the City with selected journalists showed a lamentable amateurism in making big-firm wireless networks secure.

Feilden Clegg Bradley's Samios says that security is a rumbling issue for the practice. And Feilden & Mawson's Rynsard points out that government clients are inclined to be interested in wireless security, especially law courts. The practice is currently building the Manchester Crown Court and has designed for it the first paperless courtroom where all the evidence will appear on PC and laptop screens and a big wall-mounted flat screen. Not yet fitted out, the current design provides raised floors for cable networking. But, Rynsard says, the department has a working party thinking about wireless technology. The issue is not whether it can be made secure, but whether people believe it is secure. Rynsard says: 'The public has to be convinced it's safe and that evidence cannot be tracked back to the originator.'

Those are special public real circumstances. But warchalking demonstrates less that there is something fundamentally insecure about wireless than the fact that quite a lot of IT managers have been lazy in not turning on even basic out-ofthe-network-box security buttons. If somebody really wanted your secrets they would probably do it by using one of the time honoured industrial espionage techniques, rather than sitting in a car pointing a Pringles can at your office. Still, it might be prudent to look out of the window from time to time.

What will you do with all those old wires once wireless technology has become universal?

Intel, busy pushing wireless working, asked Design laboratory, part of Central St Martins College of Art and Design, to address the issue. It came up with this range of transparent furniture incorporating the redundant connections - flies in amber for the digital age.

PoE (Power over Ethernet), the subject of the new IEE 802.3af standard, delivers 48V at 13W and 400 mA - much the same as on phone lines. It is intelligent enough to know whether an attached device is designed to run off 802.3afstandard power.Whereas mains cabling involved quite bulky step down transformers, transformers for taking voltage down to the customary 123V and 5V used in computing can be very small.

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