Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Ubiquitous Wireless: Nearer Than You Think

When any of us steps into a room inside a building, our hand automatically swings over toward the area next to the door, with our subconscious fully expecting to find a light switch waiting there for our touch. And, it is actually there where expected so much of the time that not finding one in the expected location is jarring. That's the impact of ubiquitous electricity... electricity everywhere.

Today, we are looking at a horizon that hides a similarly revolutionary evolution in the wireless data sector. Soon, at a near-time just now out of sight, we will walk into a room anywhere, with just as profound of an expectation of wireless connectivity. We will expect ubiquitous wireless.

The Path Ahead

Today's wireless market is fractured arbitrarily into several logically disparate sectors. Most wireless data installations are very specifically designed to the exact need of the facility. LAN and WAN distinctions guide design modalities. Incompatibilities still abound. Yet, despite the mess thus created, consumers keep pulling wireless connectivity forward to ever higher levels of functional expectation. The logical conclusion of this haphazard process is the eventual existence of "wireless everywhere," and a wireless data landscape that permits device independent and protocol independent ubiquity. Wireless is inexorably headed to an "it just works" endpoint.

Understanding The Mission

The infrastructure that permits ubiquitous electricity is a maze of devices and structures carefully hidden away all around us. Electricity is very much an out of sight, out of mind proposition. We all "know" that it's there. But, we want and expect for it to be there without being obvious. We want it there, but deeply buried into the fabric of our surroundings. And, it must just work.

The mission for the entrepreneurs who are guiding the investments into today's wireless data connectivity solutions should include this same idea: whenever possible slant the offering toward the idea of burying away the technology components into the fabric of the surroundings. In other words, hide the technology.

Beyond hiding the technology, the road to ubiquity is going to require more thought be invested into standards and hardware consideration. Truly universal wireless is going to require that consumers never give a thought or care to which device they wish to use, at what time, for what purpose... they will simply "know" that, wherever the location, the device will just work.

Electricity Market As Metaphor

As the idea of commercialized electricity distribution was just making its first attempts to emerge from the laboratory, there were a number of competing ideas for the "right" approach. Very quickly it was proven that multiple competing standards for distribution would not play well together in the marketplace. So, geographies that would be physically intertwined quickly settled into one standard method. North America evolved into one standard, and, Europe into another. The rest of the world eventually adopted standards roughly similar to, but not exactly compatible with either the U.S. or the Europe standard. The result was a mess, and, remains a mess today.

The same commercialization path is being followed today with wireless data. Given that "wireless data" here includes all commercial LAN and WAN efforts, cellphone systems, satellite systems, and all terrestrial systems (including short-range methods, such as Bluetooth) of wireless data communication are lumped into the same idea, the idea of "wireless data." From that wide view, today's wireless data market is an even more horrifically diverse mess than was the electricity distribution market shortly after its emergence.

The geographic disconnect between the continents is influencing wireless data commercialization just as it did electricity distribution commercialization. The builders shaping the new wireless market are making the same short-sighted decisions as did the builders of the electricity market. It would seem that interoperability is taking an unfortunate backseat to the quest for ubiquity. And, most people feel that the resulting maze of incompatible products and infrastructure is only delaying the desired endpoint, and is wasting billions of dollars in purposeless developmental and implementation resources. Fortunately, all is not as bleak as would seem, as the relentless progression of technology has the promise to counter the infrastructure mess.

The Radio As The Common Thread

As microelectronics shrinks the physical package required to hold the guts of our daily gadgets, it also opens solutions to the idea of disparate wireless data system deployment. Simply, the solution to the existence of a myriad of incompatible wireless data infrastructures can be, and most likely will be found in the form of multi-band, multi-protocol wireless transceivers. These universal transceivers will include all of the needed radio modalities and antennae needed to make local connections to whatever wireless signal is present. And, these devices will be smart enough to select the best available connection from whatever mix of options might exist in a location.

On the road, this universal wireless transceiver will connect to what we now refer to as a WAN system, today best allegorized by the cellular network. Indoors, the device will automatically scan through the open options and select the one that provides the needed bandwidth at the lowest required power level. That could range from as modest a connection as a Zigbee link through the soft drink machine next to you, to a powerful 802.11 LAN system that's saturating an entire building. In any case, you will never have to think about any of this, as your wireless device will just obediently perform the needed thinking for you.

Where Is The Endpoint?

The reality of ubiquitous wireless data is not as far in the future as might be supposed. Multimodal transceivers are already here (as with today's 802.11b/g LAN products or with multiband cell phones). And, the steps to add more modes to these devices are already being taken in the form of smaller ASICs and more capable transceiver logic semiconductors. Wireless data systems are already grouping around a small number of spectrum slices, generally in the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and cellular bands, so, antenna configurations can be simplified to those applications. With this reality in mind, a newer viewpoint than the one commonly expressed appears.

If the multimodal wireless data transceiver is the tie that will bind together any and all disparate wireless infrastructures, the seeming goal of interoperability recedes. What emerges is a more compelling goal to simply build out the needed wireless infrastructure, any wireless infrastructure so that the world is saturated with signal, any signal.

The opportunities presented by this realization are staggering to the electronics manufacturers building wireless gadgets. If multimodal devices truly represent the key to unlock tomorrow's need for ubiquitous wireless data, then the manufactures who first embrace this idea and begin diverting resources into accelerating the commercialization of these new devices will have a substantial headstart on the pack. And, the quicker that these smarter and more capable devices begin to reach the market, the more adoption of wireless systems will take place by consumers. It can be a very quickly evolving marketplace.

Any manufacturer smart enough to tackle the production of multimodal chipsets and boards that reach beyond today's normal system compatibilities will quickly be rewarded with a hugely growing customer base. The first one that sells a true "all systems" compatible offering will win the prize. And, consumers will rejoice.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Master Of Big Ideas

A recent realization is really consuming much of my thinking these days. Simply, I realized that we live in a time where many of the most widely used products around us cannot be built by one person. The knowledge needed to build them just can't fit into the mind of one person. The ideas are too big. And... it is the men and women who grasp this reality, and implement new methods to embrace it and work within it who are going to be leading tomorrow's technology product markets.

What's The Big Idea?

An example of what I mean by "big ideas" can be found as close to hand as the torrent of media attention recently given to Apple's adoption of Intel microprocessors. Do you know how to build a microprocessor? More importantly, does anybody? The answer is that no one person knows how to build one. The idea is too large for one person to handle.

To make my point so clearly that nobody can miss it: There is no one person anywhere on this planet who is capable of understanding how to build a microprocessor, from scratch. Nobody can do it. The idea is larger than the capacity of any one mind.

When Ideas Were Smaller

We are still surrounded by even complex products that can be understood and built by one person. But, to make a point, I'll drift back into history to show what I'm talking about.

When Alexander Bell created a telephone, he understood the chemistry of the materials he used, the fabrication methods for converting raw substances into those materials, the basic physics upon which his devices worked, and, the tools and methods needed to convert a pile of raw materials into a telephone (albeit it a crude one). Today, in labs around the world, there are many people who still understand the entire process required to create a telephone. In a pinch, you could toss one of these guys a shovel, a backpack with a few tools, send them into the wild toward a few handy mineral deposits, and, they could gather the stuff from nature to go back to the shop and fabricate a telephone from buckets of raw materials. The idea of a telephone, although large, falls within the scope of knowledge that one extremely bright person is capable of mastering: chemistry, physics, engineering, fabrication

A clock (mechanical), a gas engine (even distilling the petroleum based fuel to run it), the telescope, a shoe, a handgun, all of these complex devices and many, many more are typical of the one-man, one-mind, inventor mentality that was responsible for the bulk of technological innovation for the past few hundred years. But, the last 50-years has brought a fundamental change to the way new inventions are brought to life. The products are too complicated for one person to build (or even to fundamentally understand), so, inventors creating today's hot products have adopted new methods, to cope.

The Lone Inventor Approach

The old method of invention was for one person to develop a clear mental vision of a product, what it would do, how it would look, and, then the conceiver of the idea would just go to work building it. The process looks something like this:

1. Imagine a product
2. Consider the elements needed to create the product
3. Distill the needed elements into a finished product

Now, there's a new step in the process, one required to cope with these too-large ideas I am discussing.

Breaking Large Ideas Into Smaller Ones

My first take on all of this was that the product creation process today must be more team-based than ever before. After all, if something you want to build requires knowledge you don't (and cannot) have, it seems you would pull other people into your process who do have that knowledge. And, together as a team, you would chase your goal. Interestingly, in science, it actually does work that way. But, in technology (converting science to real products), the team is mostly mythology. Even with big ideas, most technology products created today come from the mind and efforts of one person. Instead of building a team, these contemporary inventors are tackling their too-big goals using an entirely different coping mechanism, one that I have never seen discussed, and that is the reason for this article.

The Modular Approach: Object Oriented Invention

Whether the term sticks, or drifts into obscurity as this article slowly archives its way deep into the bowels of this site, I want to introduce you to the idea I call Object Oriented Invention . This turns out to actually be the method being used by today's inventors to bring inordinately complex products to market, ones that are far beyond the capacity of one person to understand or build.

The idea of recruiting a team to tackle a project never occurs to an inventor using this new approach to creation. Instead, the inventor simply adds a step to the age-old process, and then proceeds forward, alone, as always:

1. Imagine a product
2. Consider the elements needed to create the product
3. Note the elements not within your skill set and get them from other sources
4. Distill the needed elements into a finished product

Today's complex devices require that the inventor have a good grasp of what he knows, what he does not know, and, where to find information on what he does not know. And, it is the inventors who have mastered that third step (locating knowledge he does not possess), who are setting the world on fire with wonderful new inventions. In fact, I will now point to the core of my thesis here: Today's (and tomorrow's) most successful inventions will still come from the minds of individual people. But, the process of invention, itself, is more about assembling existing modules of technology into new forms than about creating all-new science. In fact, examples are already evident of products created by this new process, where, just as complex software has been crafted from existing pieces of code (objects) put together in new ways, existing objects of technology have been reassembled into very successful new products.

Pulling Together The Pieces

Perhaps no better example of the Object Oriented Invention process can be cited than the Apple iPod. There is, quite literally, no new technology in an iPod. It is a product completely created with existing technology objects. And, its inventor, Steve Jobs, is an equally compelling example of this new-age inventor type I am discussing: He is personally incapable of "building" even one element of the iPod, from scratch. In other words, Mr. Jobs could be handed a bucket and a shovel and aimed at the nearest appropriate mineral deposits, and, upon returning to the lab, with his bucket still empty, could do none of the shop work needed to create an iPod. He is not a traditional inventor. Yet, Steve jobs is a master of Object Oriented Inventing. He has mastered Step 3: He knows how to locate and smartly apply technology knowledge he does not personally possess.

By knowing how to find the missing technology objects, and, in knowing how to selectively recombine those technology objects, Steve Jobs has mastered the art of Object Oriented Invention... to a degree that he needs not add any new objects of his own creation, in order to create an entirely new, successful product.

The Lessons And Challenges

The reality of Object Oriented Invention becoming the standard method of product creation is that it, first, creates a growing demand for "objects," meaning that there will be a growing demand for small bits of sub-technology from the science community, ones that can be added to the available library of objects, and used by the new inventors. Secondly, it elevates the Object Oriented Inventor to a more central role in the technology industry. The old stereotype of a socially maladjusted nerd of an inventor, being relegated to some workbench in the back of the business is just that: old. The new stereotype will grow to be that of the inventor/entrepreneur who garners both respect and financial rewards for successfully reassembling and creatively redeploying the huge diversity of technology objects that will be growing around us.

Scientists need to think smaller, creating rapidly deployable objects of small technology, and, make sure that the new inventors know about the bits and pieces so created.

Inventors need to master new methods and systems for locating and understanding the application of the growing number of technology objects.

And, lone-wolf innovators need to accept today's reality that the most widely successful new products are not the bleeding-edge "objects" of technology, themselves; they are the result of the smoothing and shaping of those objects by skilled new Object Oriented Inventors.

Inventor As Hero

Finally, one result of this fundamental shift in the way new products are created is that the role of the Object Oriented Inventor is going to grow in both prominence and dominance in industry. Tomorrow's business leaders will, more and more be the men and women who embrace Object Oriented Invention, master its new challenges, and, use the process skillfully to give businesses what they want and need: hit products.

Steve Jobs is not an anomaly; he is the archetype that defines the new genre.

Monday, June 06, 2005

WWDC Keynote: What Was Not Said

Now that I've been proven right about the x86 chip transition of Apple's hardware platform, I'll point out that Steve Jobs only served the entree' at today's event. The pie and ice cream will come later.

The Apple Developer View

Today, Jobs only gave a one-way view into the heart of the hardware transition to Intel's standard chip line... the view that looks at moving existing Mac applications to OS X running on the new Apple/Intel machines. The view not exposed today is the one of that as-yet unspecified new hardware. That view will emerge not from Apple, but from the growing number of Apple Developers who will soon be receiving their $999 development Intel Macs in the mail. Those are the guys who will hop on their favorite messageboard and start spreading the next amazing piece of the puzzle: The new machines will run Windows!

The Windows User View

The next, and final piece of this triumvirate of shattering revelations will come, also online, just a few minutes later, as those same amazed developers load their OS X/Intel DVDs into the nearest "normal" PC, and... BING!... that new compile of OS X happens to also install and run flawlessly.

Even though Apple's first Intel based hardware will not come to market until next spring, Apple will begin marketing OS X for Intel as a retail product in early 2006, probably announced at MacWorld Expo, San Fransciso.

Apple With Its Hands Untied

As I said yesterday, Apple is taking off the two major self-imposed restraints that has held them back into being merely a niche player in the world computer market. First, they are moving to industry standard hardware that will run any popular operating system (thereby letting anyone at all be a viable customer for their hardware). And, they are moving OS X to be compatible with industry standard hardware (thereby letting anyone at all be a viable customer for their operating system).

The next few years will be pretty exciting, as Apple shows just what a customer focused, design-centric brand of PCs can accomplish against the dullards now barely out of the beige box mentality. And, with only $129 standing between virus ridden user Hell, and having OS X on their existing machines, it will be amazing to watch the masses begin ridding their lives of the user-unfriendly Windows experience.

Yep, today sure set the stage for a massive resurgence for Apple. And, I am humbled to have lived long enough to see the guys in Cupertino show the courage to do what needed done.

Bravo, Apple!

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Apple To Open OS X To Intel '086 Machines

With the rampant discussion about a possible Apple switch to Intel processors, many people are speculating that the Intel processor in question surely must not be the dreaded "086" variant that is the staple of the Windows world. And, say these alarmists, if Apple did indeed adopt bone-standard WinTel internals for its machines, then Apple's hardware business would evaporate overnight. Every time I read this reasoning, I think one word: Hogwash.

The Truth About Apple's Hardware Market

While it is certain that Apple derives a huge proportion of its profits from its hardware sales, and, that moving the internals of that hardware to an industry standard architecture built around an Intel processor would certainly be a notable change, there is really no reason to think that Apple's hardware revenue would miss a beat, as a result. Apple doesn't presently compete on price against the entry level PC machines from Dell, E-Machines, Gateway, and the rest. Apple's hardware is priced against mid- to high-end PC hardware. From a price/performance view, Apple's product line looks a lot like Sony's: both avoid the dirt-cheap bottom end of the market, and, they sell their products based more on brand appeal, high styling, and premium positioning.

Figuring Out The Possibilities

Asking a few simple questions, and, comparing the answers can quickly prove out the eventual result of Apple adopting a standard Intel-based architecture.

1. How many present Apple customers would abandon Apple hardware, if OS X would run equally well on PC machines from other makers?

2. How many current Windows users would like to buy Apple hardware, if Windows would run perfectly on the new Apple machines?

3. How many Windows users would buy Apple's OS X operating system to install as a primary (or secondary) OS on their existing PCs?

My guess is that the sort of premium computer shoppers who now comprise the bulk of Apple's user base would still continue to buy Apple hardware, so long as the price/performance remained roughly equal to similarly priced premium offerings from Sony, Alienware, and to a degree, from the mid and high end of the HP, Compaq, Acer, Dell, and other product lines.

The flip side is that diehard Windows users who now buy mid- and high-priced models from Sony, Alienware, HP, Compaq, Acer, Dell, and other product lines would love to consider the gorgeously crafted machines from Apple. And, Apple would gain a whole new wave of these more-affluent shoppers as customers.

Finally, every single owner of a Windows based PC on the planet would instantly become a sales prospect for Mac OS X. Some number of these people would buy OS X for use on their existing PCs.

Apple's stunningly designed machines would all ship standard with OS X installed. Any buyer could then install whatever flavor of Windows (or Linux, etc.) on the Mac that they chose to add.

Not Everyone Is A Cheapskate

Apple does not now compete against the Best Buy Sunday supplement PCs. And, surprisingly, most PC buyers don't actually buy those stripped down models, either. The middle and upper end of the PC market is a very busy, vibrant marketplace, where, by revenue, well over half of the business takes place. In other words, half of all PC dollars spent are for machines priced in the higher two-thirds of the models available from all manufacturers... even Dell. And, interesting from a business analysis standpoint, perhaps 80% of the profits earned in the PC industry are from selling those same mid- to high-end models. PC makers make very little profit from the Sunday supplement discount sales.

This Is Actually Good News

The bottom line here is simply that there is no real downside to Apple engineering a smooth transition to building Macs with an industry standard '086 based architecture. But, there is one whale of an upside. And, if this is the move announced by Steve Jobs on Monday, the most frightened people who hear the news should not be Mac users, but, the CEOs at Dell, Sony, HP, Gateway, and the rest. Suddenly, their comfortable little stranglehold on the lucrative middle and upper end of the PC market will be in deep trouble.