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.


Anonymous Juha Haataja said...

Thanks for a nice article! I'm thinking along similar
lines also, but I'm undecided what path will produce
the best infrastructure for the future personal networks. Perhaps intelligent dust wired together?

12:06 PM, June 16, 2005  

Post a Comment

<< Home