Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coop's 3 Tech Predictions for 2009: #1--Wireless Goes Over a Cliff

My #1 tech prediction for 2009 is...


A week late in fact. You'd think that I'd done enough shows in Vegas (CES, NAB, NATPE, N+I) that if anyone, I'd understand the futility of trying to get an in-depth analytical piece published once I physically arrived in Sin City. Whoops.

Thanks to those of you who've been hounding me about when I'd finally have this prediction finished; particular thanks to the one of you who used to work for me who's been on me like white on rice about getting the piece finalized and up. I hope that I can make it up to you by including heyCoop's very first embedded YouTube interview (conducted by Intel, not by me); look for more in the future.

So, my number #1 tech prediction for 2009? Cliffside, Cliffside, Cliffside.

What's that, you say? You've never heard of Cliffside? Well, that was kind of my point. I could've come out and said "TVs will get thinner! Blu-ray will get cheaper (and still not sell well)! Ballmer will talk about Windows 7! Circuit City will fold!" But, c'mon...that's not very insightful. I wanted to go out on a limb and predict the arrival and growth of something few people had heard of.


Ironically, Intel publicly announced Cliffside at the show, which A) makes me look like a genius for having chosen this as my number 1 tech prediction for 2009; B) makes me look like an idiot, since I didn't get the post up before the announcement; and C) didn't get nearly the coverage you might've expected, since they chose not to use the project's code name, but rather chose to label it Intel My Wi-Fi Personal Area Network, or Mobile Wi-Fi PAN, as the sign called it.

I suspect that a committee may've been involved.

But here at heyCoop headquarters, we're gonna keep calling it Cliffside, rather than IMWFPAN, or however that acronym plays out.

Great. Now I'm on record. What the heck is this Cliffside thing, anyway?

You might call it a competitor to Bluetooth, Wireless USB, or TransferJet.

Let's start with a comparison to Bluetooth. I don't know the numbers (and I probably should, since heyCoop, LLC is a member of the Bluetooth SIG), but I'll take a guess and say that >99.99% of Bluetooth pairs worldwide are between cell phones and earpieces. Cool. But, I really wish that the pairing between my MacBook and my BlackBerry allowed me to do everything I wanted to, rather than still needing a USB cable. Yes, I can tether via Bluetooth, enabling my MacBook to use my Curve as a wireless modem. Very useful. However, I'd also like my contacts to sync over Bluetooth; since RIM's Mac support is still sorely lacking, I use Missing Sync for the BlackBerry to synchronize my contacts. For e-mail, I use Google Apps' IMAP; for calendar, I use Google Sync. But, there's no clean way to get contacts on my Mac synched to my BlackBerry except by physically connecting my device.

Which I detest. Sure, I could attempt to connect my BlackBerry and my Mac via an access point (infrastructure mode), then get them to communicate. Unfortunately, I've tried that, and they won't sync.

So...where does Cliffside come in? Well, much as Shimmer was a desert topping and a floor wax, Cliffside does two things well--infrastructure support and ad hoc support.

  • Supports four modes on the LAN side--11a, b, g, and draft-N
  • Supports three modes (currently) on the PAN side--11a, b, and g
  • Supports 450 mb/s or 300 mb/s of capacity on the LAN side, depending on chipset
  • Supports 54 mb/s of capacity on the PAN side
  • Supports separate networks on each half of the MAC, with a DHCP server for the PAN side
  • Already has Avega Systems, G2 Microsystems, and Ozmo showing demos 
Let's start by looking at infrastructure support; that's the Wi-Fi we all know and love. Embedded in a bajillion devices, Wi-Fi has become a way of life for connecting devices to the Internet. With a wide range of silicon options available from a number of vendors, Wi-Fi is the world's most popular wireless local area network technology, hands down. Infrastructure mode requires an access point to function, which is fine when you're looking to connect back to the big bad I.

However, for ad hoc support, Wi-Fi hasn't been quite so good. Ever tried setting up an ad hoc, peer-to-peer network using Wi-Fi? Easy, it ain't. Bluetooth rules for personal area networking applications, with more than two billion chips shipped. All the cool kids here in Silicon Valley wear their Bluetooth earpieces all the time. (Wait, what? Huh?) But Bluetooth hasn't been great for synchronization, since much of the profile focus has gone towards applications like headsets and hands-free use. Wireless USB shoulda been a contender, but hasn't made it yet; skeptics believe it may never make it. Bluetooth 10x and 100x are going to be interesting; I look forward to the further development and delivery of both.

But, what I really look forward to testing is Cliffside. By using a split-MAC architecture, Intel's new Centrino 2 chipset enables a single chip to perform both infrastructure and ad hoc duties, delivering some very compelling new use cases. Synchronizing content between Wi-Fi enabled devices is now not only possible, it's easy--and doesn't require an access point. Local network access while on a VPN is now both safe and secure. Have you ever wanted to print something to your home printer, but you were connected to your enterprise VPN, which doesn't allow split tunneling? Cliffside's split-MAC capability would allow exactly that use case--secure local wireless connectivity in ad hoc mode, and secure infrastructure wireless connectivity while using your VPN.

I spent some time on Sunday with Scott Doenecke, who looks after Cliffside for Intel. He took me through a full demo, and seemed pretty excited that I'd actually sought out Cliffside on the show floor. I certainly wasn't the only one, but having dealt with split-MAC issues in conjunction with remote access using FIPS 140-2 validated cryptographic modules in a past life (buy me a beer), I'm digging what Cliffside enables.

In addition to the cool features mentioned above, Intel has both a Flash demo and an interview with Scott which will educate you on Cliffside.

No, Cliffside's not perfect. In fact, the capability isn't even available yet, but expect to see it enabled by the end of first quarter. The Centrino 2 chipset itself is shipping; look for a software download in the next couple of months to enable the split-MAC functionality. Cliffside will be available on a device-by-device basis within laptop manufacturers' lines, geared towards consumer (rather than enterprise) platforms initially.

And, since Apple doesn't use the Centrino 2, don't expect to see this on a Mac anytime soon, darn it anyway. Hopefully Cliffside will prove itself to be so useful that Apple will see the light; the iTunes remote control demo that Scott showed me made me want to call Apple and suggest that they have a look post-haste.

Use cases abound for Cliffside. No, this isn't as sexy as a TV the thickness of a hair, or of a Blu-ray promotion where I receive a free disc every week for the rest of my life, simply for buying a Blu-ray player. But, in terms of dramatically simplifying users' interactions with their devices, Cliffside has huge promise.

And might save us a bunch of time so we can go watch Blu-ray movies on our paper-thin TVs.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mike - I work with the Bluetooth SIG's PR team and am glad you're looking forward to Bluetooth high speed technology - we'll keep you posted on that. Just wanted to let you know something that surprised even us - the second largest Bluetooth device category after mobile phones is actually gaming devices, with headsets coming in third. So I'd have to argue with your assumption that >99.99% of all Bluetooth connections are mobile phone/headset. It appears the gaming folks have surpassed the headset-wearing "cool kids" :-).