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executive interview with Ron Smith, Intel wireless communications and computing group
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Ever wonder what Intel has to do with wireless technology? A lot, it turns out. Recently, editors from Intel Business Computing sat down with Ron Smith, Senior Vice President, General Manager of Intel's Wireless Communications and Computing Group. The talk centered on the state of wireless technology and Intel's role in the burgeoning wireless Internet.

Intel Business Computing: If you listened to all the news reports these days, you'd think the wireless industry was dead in the water. True?

Ron Smith: Not at all. What we're seeing is an inventory correction, a short-term phenomenon. Last year there was unbridled enthusiasm, which probably ratcheted up expectations a little much. But we're a major provider of flash memory and other technology for wireless devices, so we see what's going on. New subscriber rates remain very strong. The fundamentals are still extremely good.

Intel Business Computing: So the wireless market will take off again?

Smith: Absolutely. Voice communication has become a staple. Everyone has to have it everywhere they go. A large percentage of the workforce already has a wireless cell phone. And yes, a large percentage already has a mobile data device, like a notebook PC. But there is a certain segment of the business population that is extremely mobile and will need instant access to data wherever they are. And that's where the wireless Internet becomes critical.

Intel Business Computing: Ah yes, the wireless Internet. There are mixed reports about how well the wireless Internet works, whether people actually want it, etc. What needs to happen for the Internet to go truly wireless?

Smith: Well, it's true the current wireless Internet has a ways to go. The user experience isn't that great and it takes 37 clicks to get anywhere. WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) is like a version 1.0. Using it is like using [Microsoft] Windows* 1.0. But people are still buying WAP-enabled devices. Just because it's limited in its usability does not mean it's not desirable. The question remains, is there a demand to have Internet access in your pocket wherever you go? The answer is yes.

And wireless companies will do what needs to be done to make it happen. They've paid a ton of money for new wireless spectrums, and with revenues from voice transmissions on the decline, they're counting on data services to gain back revenue.

Intel Business Computing: So how do we get there from here?

Smith: Let's first look where "here" is. First generation cellular technology, or what I'll call 1G, started out as an analog technology. It quickly moved to a second generation, digital network, which is where we are today.

Now, today's digital networks have a data rate of about 9600 baud or so, and as you know, there's not much you can do with the Internet at 9600 baud or even 14.4 kilobits-per-second. So there's an effort underway, currently in Europe, to upgrade existing networks so they operate in the 115 kilobit-per-second range. This is generation 2.5. The most important aspect of this generation of wireless networks is the conversion to packet data rather than so-called circuit-switch data. Let's talk more about that in a minute. 2.5G will enable wireless access to the Internet.

Finally, you have the third generation, or 3G wireless networks. 3G wireless networks give you broadband capability. Despite fits and starts, 3G is going to start rolling out later this year in Japan. Then 3G networks will be rolled out in Europe the year after, then in Asia, and ultimately, in the U.S.

Intel Business Computing: So tell us why packet data is so important for a wireless Internet.

Smith: In today's generation of wireless Internet, we're still using circuit switching. You make a phone call, the other party answers, and you establish a dedicated channel, or circuit, that keeps you connected.

In the current build out, networks will move to packet switching, which just happens to be the native communications method of the Internet. When we move to packet switching, your wireless device can always be on and always be connected to the Internet, provided service gaps are kept to a minimum. It's similar to a pager in that respect. Now you can have real-time messaging, news alerts, and other information sent to you automatically without dialing a number to make a connection. With higher bandwidth and packetized data, we will truly more from a voice-only wireless world to a voice-plus-data world.

Intel Business Computing: And the benefits of an always-on wireless connection must be great.

Smith: They certainly are. Mobile professionals could really use an always-on, always-connected device in their hand. Realtors could be out with clients and be alerted instantly when a new house comes on the market, or a list price has been reduced. When information is key to success, access to that information at a moment's notice is essential.

As another example, in the medical market, always-on wireless devices can help doctors with patient monitoring, whether they're in the hospital or at home.

Intel Business Computing: So how do people pay for an always-on connection? These days they pay based on the duration of their calls.

Smith: When you have packets of data, you charge by the bits. The more data you pull down to your wireless device, the more it costs. You don't necessarily charge for the connection. Billing services will be a key part of what wireless operators provide.

Intel Business Computing: What is Intel's role in all this? Intel isn't Qualcomm or Nokia, so what does it bring to the wireless movement?

Smith: Ah, good question. A lot of people ask that exact question, assuming Intel is brand-new to wireless technology. Not true. As I mentioned, Intel has always been a top provider of flash memory for wireless devices, but as we move more toward a wireless Internet, Intel's expertise becomes important.

Simply put, Intel knows data. As we move more toward wireless data, the technology to handle that data becomes just as important as the wireless technology itself. Currently, in the voice-only wireless world, the Internet dangles at the periphery of a wireless infrastructure consisting of antennae, base station receivers, switching centers, and ordinary phone lines.

But to really make the Internet wireless, the network is going to have to look like that of the wired Internet, with routers, additional servers, and powerful clients.

Intel Business Computing: Maybe we can break it down to infrastructure and clients.

Smith: Sure. At the infrastructure level, there will be a constant need for increasing performance while maintaining low power. Additional computing power will be required to both deliver new services and to simply handle the increased traffic that will come with data. As these data services and resulting traffic grow, your infrastructure will need to be scalable so that you can add capacity incrementally.

In Europe, for example, there's SMS, or Simple Messaging Service. It's built on servers at the edge of the network where mobile users get direct access from a base station controller. Users in Western Europe have sent 10 billion messages in a single month using SMS.

Intel Business Computing: Clients are obviously an issue. Today's Net-enable phones especially seem unfit for a wireless Internet.

Smith: That is changing quickly. Clients will have bigger screens, more multimedia capability, and more processing power. And they'll come in all shapes and sizes.

Today's cell phones have three basic subsystems: the communications subsystem, the computing subsystem, and the memory subsystem. In today's devices, the computing subsystem is pretty rudimentary. All it needs to do is handle simple control functions and a user interface.

But as you add wireless services, power management functions, high-bandwidth data, and more, you need a far more powerful computing subsystem. And as we add more data and applications, the memory requirements increase significantly. We're talking about adding color displays, graphical user interfaces, Web browsers, security systems for handling e-commerce. Your average wireless device is going to become much more powerful.

As you can see, this starts to sound like Intel's area of expertise.

Intel Business Computing: What technologies does Intel currently have to address these requirements?

Smith:Well, perhaps the most important thing we can and do provide for wireless devices is compact, low-power, non-volatile flash memory. If the memory fails, that cell phone becomes a paperweight.

In addition, we have the Intel� StrongARM* processor. It leads the industry in terms of milliwatts per MIP. It's well suited to handheld devices and wireless data clients. We have a number of customers using this product already. Intel also has baseband chipsets and signal processing solutions, both of which will be critical to the next generation wireless clients.

Underneath it all, there's Intel� XScale� Microarchitecture. It's a new microarchitecture tailored specifically to the needs of emerging clients. It builds off of the Intel StrongARM architecture base to deliver leading-edge performance in terms of milliwatts per MIPS, which is the true measure of low power, high performance applications.

Intel Business Computing: And of course, Intel knows network infrastructure.

Smith: Absolutely. In the back-end we have servers based on the Intel� Pentium� III Xeon�, Intel� Xeon�, and Intel� Itanium� processors that are ideally suited to a wireless network infrastructure. They deliver the kind of reliability and incremental scalability that wireless service providers will absolutely need in order to meet users' expectations. Across the network, we have the Intel� Internet Exchange Architecture (IXA), providing the communication infrastructure equipment companies the silicon and software building blocks.

Intel Business Computing: All the memory and chipsets and processors are great, but what if there are no applications to run on them? Or what if an application runs on one device, but not on the one you happen to own?

Smith: It's an important problem currently; one that Intel is aggressively addressing. In today's wireless world, a cell phone or wireless device is a vertical device. If you want to add an application to your phone, for instance, they need to be designed for your phone or else you need to buy a new phone. Needless to say, that situation is not conducive to widespread user adoption.

What Intel has introduced is the Intel� Personal Internet Client Architecture. The Intel PCA separates the hardware and software subsystems so they can evolve independently. Applications can then be written to a general-purpose microprocessor architecture, much as they are in the PC world.

Intel Business Computing: What are the benefits of the Intel PCA?

Smith: Well, first of all, it's important to understand that for a wireless Internet to truly succeed, we need applications to suit every type of mobile professional. That means lots of developers working on solutions.

With Intel PCA, hardware manufacturers and software developers can create products faster and target them to specific users. And with the computing capability extracted from the communications capability, there is now performance headroom in the device for more and more powerful applications. This is especially important to the user. More importantly, you as a user don't have to worry that the next killer application that comes out can't be loaded on your wireless phone.

Intel Business Computing: How has the industry embraced the Intel PCA?

Smith: Very well indeed. In fact, just this past March, we hooked up with IBM to help spark Intel PCA development. IBM announced that it would port its WebSphere* Everyplace Suite Embedded Edition to the StrongARM processor and XScale Microarchitecture. This will allow developers to create build their applications across multiple devices more rapidly and easily. Combine this with joint development on the server side and you have a complete solution for the customer. In May, we also announced our collaboration with British Telecom to develop and rollout new applications on the network based on Intel PCA. In total we have over 70 companies that have publicly endorsed PCA, and have many more working with us on future products.

Intel Business Computing: There's obviously a ton of stuff going on in the wireless arena�

Smith: More than I can possibly describe in a single discussion. Intel is doing a lot more to make the dream of a wireless Internet a reality. I'd encourage anyone who is interested to check out what we're doing at the "Intel in Wireless" section of the Intel Web site.

Related Information

Intel Personal Client Architecture (PCA)

Intel StrongARM processor

Intel XScale Microarchitecture

Intel Internet Exchange Architecture (IXA)

Intel Executive Bio: Ron Smith

Article: "Intel's Many Roles in the Wireless Internet"

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