I didn't make it to the Penton Wireless System Design Conference this year. With attendance increasingly flagging in San Jose, the conference organizers decided this year to move it to San Diego. They were thinking perhaps that the large population of Qualcomm designers and military contractors now looking toward opportunities in commercial RF might encourage a larger turnout. Exhibitors did report to me that their traffic was a bit livelier here than it had been in previous years.
I was too overloaded to schedule a trip to this Wireless Conference - I was in Manhattan for a company meeting, in fact - but the Penton folks must have taken the liberty of transferring last year's press attendees into this year's database, because I was getting phone calls from a number of press agents with some company interest in wireless communications saying, "I heard you were in San Diego this week."
My absence made it a little difficult for me to cover the keynote address, though Broadcom's founder, chairman and chief technology officer, Henry Samueli was gracious enough to call me just before my flight to New York to fill me in on what he was trying to say.
The previous week, Atmel's press agent was trying to get me to interview their wireless business unit manager, Chris Baumann. I mistakenly believed that HE was giving the keynote, when in fact he was only introducing Dr. Samueli. Still, with my head down on a dozen other projects, I was resistant to interview him.
"Is he going to say something controversial?" I asked the press agent. "Or is this going to be another one of those 'wonderful world of wireless... la, la, la' types of keynotes?" She assured me that Chris Baumann would be worth talking to. "When I am done with him, he will be 'edgy' and 'provocative'," she promised.
The vision of "wireless everywhere" had made my heart thump five, six, seven years ago when 802.11 and Bluetooth were still battling for developers' mindshare. Network nodes based on 802.11b technology were then costing upwards of $300, while Bluetooth (nicknamed for the Norse king reputed to have united Scandinavia) promised to be a $5-add on. I remember attending one of the early Bluetooth Conferences in Geneva, Switzerland, with 4000 other tire-kickers, hearing that there were 1200 companies in the Bluetooth SIG and that that number was growing rapidly. We heard the master of ceremonies say it's "just five dollars."
And we heard the visions for ad hoc networks based on Bluetooth: It wasn't just your computer connecting to the Internet, many said. Bring your Bluetooth-enabled PDA into a supermarket, and it will respond by telling you in which aisles you'll find the items on your shopping list - and what the store specials are. One politically-incorrect speaker went so far as to envision the Bluetooth-enabled singles bar that would buzz your PDA with the blondes, brunettes or redheads that matched your profile.
It seems that kind of talk encouraged the 802.11 developers (b/a/g/n and e) to up their data rates and lower their costs. Nowadays, you can check you email or surf the Net at Starbucks (and almost any domestic airport). All you need is a $29 PCMCIA card for your portable computer and $10-daypass for a T-Mobile Hotspot. If you bring a Linksys 802.11 router into your home, you can distribute your DSL or cable modem broadband connection anywhere in the house without punching holes in the walls (as I once did) for CAT-5 cabling. It's starting to feel not just commonplace, but also mundane.
I'm not sure who's making any money in the 802.11 WLAN business, whose stock is rising on the strength of their growing market share, who's getting analysts' recommendations. I'm not sure if I want to watch TV commercials on my cell phone, and I certainly don't need a wireless connection to find blondes, brunettes or redheads at a singles bar. In terms of the wonderful world of wireless, I confess, I'm starting to feel a bit jaded.
Guess what Henry Samueli had to say.
Advances in silicon integration enable dramatic reductions in the size and cost of wireless products has enabled to equivalent of a desktop computer in our hands, Samueli said, in his formal interview with EE Times. With 3G technology, we will have a 1-Mbits/s data transfer capability which will support 3D graphics and full-motion video. This will give us access to rich multimedia contact "in our pockets at all times."
Samueli believes that fine-geometry (90- and 65-nm) CMOS will be the technology of choice. There are some issues with power dissipation (especially as the decrease in core voltages seems to be leveling off at 1V, leakage currents are problematic) but no other technology can offer the combination of low power consumption, high clock speeds and 100-million-transistor integration. "Everything ends up as an SoC," Samueli said, "That's the trajectory."
Few people I talked with had argument with Samueli's vision of the pocket media center, made possible by CMOS integration, and new communications standards. But keynote attendees like Chris Taylor, director of RF component research for Strategy Analytics (Boston) and Atmel's Chris Baumann did have reservations on the implementation scenario. Samueli's bias toward single-chip digital CMOS implementations was "a little bit of an exaggeration," said Taylor. There is quite a bit of GaAs in the power amplifiers of cell phones, he reminded. CMOS operates at radio frequencies, but it has very little drive capability. Thus, a bipolar transistor implanted on the CMOS substrate - a BiCMOS device - may be the means of driving signals off-chip, explained Atmel's Chris Baumann.
And both observers felt that Dr. Samueli had underplayed the role of low-data rate wireless applications, like ZigBee. Applications like meter reading and remote keyless entry are not as glamorous as pocket multimedia, Taylor said, but would nonetheless account for some very high volumes for RF ICs and components. And Atmel's aggressive press agent insisted that the company would be introducing a dedicated ZigBee controller and 868/902-928 MHz transceiver chip-set (along with a reference design) in April.
In New York City that week, I was reminded of other applications of RF and wireless technology, not a glamorous as a pocket media center, but no less interesting and useful. EZ-Pass in the New York metropolitan area and Fast Pass in the San Francisco Bay Area will wirelessly collect your tolls. In development, there are car radar systems operating at 76-80GHz. These might be instrumental preventing highway accidents.
At the Microwave Technology and Techniques Symposium (MTTS) on year, an IEEE-sponsored show that (despite uncertain markets) never failed to attract many thousands of attendees, M/A-Com (a Tyco subsidiary) introduced NetworkFirst for Homeland Security. This is an RF translator/repeater system that would enable municipal police, fire departments and ambulance services to seamlessly connect with each other in response to a national or city-wide emergency.
My meeting in New York was on the 30th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. We had a gorgeous view of the Empire State Building, and the rolling hills of New Jersey beyond. But there was a high wind one day, which periodically rattled the windows of our conference room - not something you'd like to experience 30 floors up. I began to wonder what it would feel like if an airplane crashed into the building We all know where THAT thought came from ("People here are still grieving from 9-11," my New York-based daughter reminded me when I first came into town.)
Perhaps it wasn't cell phones passengers on United flight 93 used to communicate with the ground. (My cell phone will say "No Service" if I inadvertently leave it on during a cross-country flight. It's not easy to maintain a cell-to-cell handoff with a 0.6-watt power amp 35,000 above the ground.) But we do know that travelers on that fateful flight out of Newark were using wireless phone mechanisms to brief themselves on events of 9-11. Was it one of those gadgets that reside in the back of the airplane seats, the kind that requires you to slide your credit card through before dialing? Or was it indeed, as the news media reported, a cell phone that some brave travelers used to call their wives, one last time - to say, "I love you" - before setting out to do hand combat with terrorist hijackers.