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Sean Maloney, head of Intel’s Mobility group and its wireless supremo, has hard experience of how new technology, however revolutionary, can be met with blank incomprehension by customers. The name of 802.11 does not help, but even when promoting the new wireless technology as “Wi-Fi” in 2003, Intel still struggled to make an initial impact.
“We put a hotspot in San Francisco airport and we had Mayor Willie Brown come and announce it. And for every 100 people that came on to our little booth explaining what it was, 99 people didn’t know about Wi-Fi,” recalls Mr Maloney.
Wi-Fi awareness rose to 80 per cent after an unprecedented advertising campaign for Intel’s Centrino platform that cost the company $350m-$400m. But it was not the first time that Intel had to drive new technologies in the face of resistance from the industry and consumers, and it will not be the last.
“In many cases, these things take years longer than anybody thought. We gave up on [promoting] USB [Universal Serial Bus] more times than I care to remember, because the vendors wouldn’t put it into PCs and finally they did and bang! It took off.
“You could say the same thing about Bluetooth, GPRS, DSL - always the most difficult thing with any technology is category creation or explaining to someone why they need this new thing,” he says.
Mr Maloney, born in London of Irish parents, is well suited to the role of being a worldwide wireless activist and ambassador for Intel. He joined the company in 1982, ran the UK operation, became a technical adviser to chief executive Andrew Grove in the US, and then served time in Asia.
He became involved in wireless in 1998, running the sales organisation, and took responsibility for products at the end of 2000. An executive vice president, he is one of the most senior figures in Intel and became head of the Mobility group when the company reorganised earlier this year.
Intel’s big wireless success has been Centrino - the platform of chips that included wireless connectivity and has internet-enabled millions of laptop computers. Intel’s promotion of Centrino also drove the whole Wi-Fi market. “Centrino catalysed it,” says Mr Maloney. “It was the right product at the right time and we spent an ungodly amount of money on advertising it.”
It was born out of a confusion of wireless standards around 1999. Mr Maloney argued with a counterpart at Sony in Asia about directions for the technology and was won over to the case for 802.11b or Wi-Fi. He then successfully argued for its promotion within Intel.
As wireless standards have continued to proliferate, from low-powered ZigBee to the 30-mile range of Wimax, Intel has been at the forefront of promoting them and striving for industry consensus. Its aims are not entirely altruistic, of course. More established wireless technologies means more opportunities to sell chips supporting them. In its heavy promotion of Wimax, Intel stands to make an impact on the mobile sector - an area it has signally failed to penetrate with its processors in the past.
Mr Maloney sees Wimax as a natural progression from Wi-Fi: “We sat in a room three years ago when we were in the middle of our lovefest with Wi-Fi and we thought the big drag about it is when you lose the signal and that the lesson from the cellular industry in the 1990s is that coverage is king.
“And so we wanted to get that same wi-fi snap experience which you can’t get on a cellular network, but cover an entire city or an entire country and - while you’re at it - re-engineer it around a pure IP [Internet Protocol] so you can drive the costs through the floor.
But Wimax faces even bigger hurdles than Wi-Fi, which has owed a lot of its success to grass-roots support as coffee shop owners and local organisations found it was simple and cheap enough to set up their own hotspots. Wimax needs a new infrastructure, requiring the support of serious network operators and even governments to ensure adequate reception.
A debate is currently raging in Europe over whether Wimax should be able to operate at 2.5Ghz and 3.5Ghz, with some countries believing the latter frequency should be preserved for 3G phones. Wimax will soon be rubbing up against 3G with the mobile version of the Wimax standard close to being approved. Intel recently introduced its Rosedale chip that supports the initial Wimax standard offering fixed broadband access.
“It’s a first step, it’s still pretty expensive. It’s competitive with DSL, but we want to drive it down far more than that - the same way the original Wi-Fi chips were $50 and now they’re down to sub-$20, we’ve got to really drive the cost down and that will take a few years.”
The next version of Rosedale in the second half of next year will be the mobile version of Wimax and the static and mobile standards will eventually be combined on one chip. “The idea is ultimately you’ll have a broadband-quality signal but you will have it wherever you are.”
Meanwhile, 3G’s proponents are pushing its speeds higher with technologies such as HSDPA, supplemented by OFDM, a modulation technique that increases bandwidth by breaking the signal into lots of sub-signals. Wimax also utilises a version of OFDM and the threat of two competing mobile broadband networks exists. Mr Maloney believes the two can co-exist, even on the same Intel chipset.
“Certainly we would want Wimax to be an overlay network not a replacement for 3G,” he says.
“So our dream is that we would make a chip in 2009 that would do both Wimax and UMTS [3G], and we would like to be able to offer it to someone like Vodafone. Ideally, what we want to do is harmonise these two standards.”