Working on a wireless future

5 Aug 2004

Only in California could an event bridge the gap between thermal dynamics in microchip manufacture and mobile phone handsets that can find Mecca. As wireless networking in all its forms becomes more pervasive, Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, is positioning itself to understand what this means for its business and how it can shape the future direction of and developments in the wireless space.

“For every client device that Intel puts silicon into … wireless is going to be the pervasive connectivity,” said Jim Johnson, vice-president and general manager of Intel’s Communications Group, kicking off a day-long presentation into the wireless world and Intel’s place in it.

Progress continues with wireless development: work is under way on new, faster standards that will offer greater speeds than are even available today. “Over the past 10 years, all the intellectual effort is shifting to wireless,” confirmed Sean Maloney (pictured), executive vice-president and general manager of Intel’s Communications Group.

Citing trends in the wireless space, Maloney said that the growth of Wi-Fi continues to be “viral”. Tracker statistics show that traffic on these networks is doubling every month. Putting this into context, he said: “Volume growth is still probably faster than it was for cellular phones.” Intel estimates that by 2008, some 700 million users will have wireless access and there will be 350 million hotspots – public access points that offer wireless connectivity.

Maloney outlined the implications for the mobile phone, which is increasingly moving towards sending and receiving greater amounts of data. Handsets with this function are forecast to overtake their voice-only counterparts next year. “We’re increasingly recognising that the cell phone has computational power and high bandwidth,” he remarked. Number crunching on silicon just happens to be Intel’s core constituency.

Although known to date as a maker of computer processors, the mobile market is clearly where Intel wants to be. A research team inside the company has produced a proof-of-concept microchip that houses up to four radios capable of handling signals from a mobile phone network or a wireless data connection. If mass produced, the chip, or a variant of it, could be put into a phone handset or a laptop computer. Crucially for consumers, this would mean a cheaper device that requires less power.

In contrast with its overwhelming lead in the PC space – and its successful work with Centrino in providing wireless networking capability to notebook PCs – Intel’s efforts to crack the handset CPU market have not been stellar. The company is chipping away at this sector just the same. Interestingly, its vision seems largely based on a combination of laptop computers and mobile phones, suggesting that there may be no place for PDAs.

Another trend Maloney highlighted is the emergence of a new standard called WiMax, also known as 802.16 (Wi-Fi belongs to 802.11). It is a broadband wireless technology and likely to end up providing fast connections to locations where cables and fibre cannot go. This has potential implications for the Irish market where broadband penetration is low, especially in areas that are not well served by telecoms providers.

According to Intel’s vision, there will be no single wireless network: Wi-Fi, 3G mobile, WiMax and Bluetooth will all coexist. The challenge becomes about designing technology that can adapt to different networks and move between them in a seamless way.

There is debate over whether WiMax will clash with the 3G mobile phone network, but Maloney downplayed that. “There are people in the technology community who believe that clash will happen but I’m sceptical, although it’s really intriguing to see where the technologies are going to bash into each other. It’s clear they’re going to coexist,” he suggested.

Intel is putting its researchers to work to make this coexistence work. Since wireless connections are effectively radio links, Intel’s approach is to throw processing power at the problem – hence the company’s keen interest in this field.

Not content with putting its best engineering minds to work on the issue, Intel has also employed a slightly different approach. Dr Genevieve Bell is a social anthropologist at Intel Research, part of a 12-person team of social scientists that looks at technology from a very unusual perspective: for the past three years she has conducted participant observation studies throughout Asia, visiting people in their homes and seeing how they interact with technology.

She jokingly calls this “deep hanging out” – a Californian concept if ever there was one – but all of this is used in an effort to see “how you don’t just design it and hope people use it,” she explained. This research will impact on everything from how Intel develops its strategic product roadmaps to how it formulates its marketing messages.

Bell encountered mobile handsets in Islamic countries that use GPS technology to locate Mecca. She also saw how the Chinese character set means that people can send elaborate political jokes by text message, despite the constraints of the format. Commenting on mobile phones, she observed: “We can’t escape the fact that they are part of cultural life and not just technology objects,” adding that technology companies need to change their assumptions about how their products are used. “We can’t think of global consumers as being all ‘a bit like us’.”

The digital home, another initiative that Intel is heavily backing, will be dependent on wireless technology; Intel’s vision involves a range of devices in various rooms of the house where users can download and watch content. In a demo, it was possible to begin watching a movie on a PC, pause it and transfer it wirelessly to a laptop, to be viewed later.

Here too Bell’s research will have an effect because of differences in the way technology is used. In Brazil, life is largely spent outside the house, which has obvious implications for the digital home as seen from Silicon Valley.

Although it is a microprocessor manufacturer, Intel’s involvement in the wireless world includes contributions to taskforces or industry forums to define and develop specifications and standards. It is also collaborating with software developers to improve their applications to take advantage of mobility – too often, tools have been developed based on the old PC-server model and aren’t optimised to get the best from working wirelessly.

Maybe the line that best summed up the event and the reasons why Intel was holding it goes: computing devices communicate, all communications devices compute. Whatever the device and whatever the network, it seems certain that we face a future of using technology without wires.

By Gordon Smith