Building the Mobile Tomorrow

by Geoff Koch


Intel Senior Fellow Kevin Kahn can’t remember how to use dialup internet access--evidence of the pace of change in mobility.

When you think of mobility innovators, Intel may not top the list. After all, the company that decades ago unleashed Moore’s Law on the mass market still earns most of its revenue selling chips for PCs and servers. (According to the 2005 Annual Report [PDF 702KB], nearly 65 percent of Intel’s 2005 revenue came from its Digital Enterprise Group, the unit that focuses mostly on supplying components to the PCs and servers used by businesses.)

But balance sheets don’t tell the whole story. In January 2003, the company announced Intel® Centrino® mobile technology, which includes a processor and related chipsets for Wi-Fi capability. It was a curious move since, at the time, wireless hot spots still were relatively novel, especially in the home. Earlier that month, in an article about cities setting up wireless networks, The New York Times still was describing Wi-Fi as merely an “increasingly popular standard.”

By March 2005, the Times was writing that Wi-Fi “has reshaped the way millions of Americans go online, letting them tap into high-speed Internet connections effortlessly at home and in many public places.” No, Intel didn’t invent the idea of a wireless laptop. But through advertising campaigns, collaborations with fellow travelers and an ability to rapidly scale a new technology, Intel helped push the industry past the Wi-Fi tipping point.

Of course, nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi is merely one step toward a truly mobile future. Intel Senior Fellow Kevin Kahn has ideas about the promises and perils further down the path. Kahn, who also directs Intel’s Communications Technology Lab, sees a need for more seamless cell phone-like roaming, better radios, and smaller and more energy-efficient devices. He appeared on the PodTech Network in Spring 2006 with host John Furrier for a brief bit of future-telling. Excerpts appear below.

Kevin Kahn: The Future of Mobility as He Sees It

Host: Tell us about Intel’s mobility strategy in a nutshell.

Kevin Kahn: People are becoming disconnected from one place of work. We have a whole generation of folks who expect to be able to communicate and access information wherever they are-and that’s probably been the biggest single theme in the entire PC marketplace over the last few years. From our perspective, mobility is a natural cultural phenomenon that’s happening as technology embeds itself in our lives. We’ve been trying to design systems and the parts of systems that are optimized for that audience.

This idea of moving to laptops and mobility as a cultural thing, is this something that Intel helped to nudge along by providing the tools to make this experi ence even better?

If you look at laptops today, it’s virtually impossible to find one that doesn’t have 802.11 built into it. That wasn’t the case a few years ago. Things changed when we introduced Intel Centrino mobile technology-an optimized platform that includes communications capability right there alongside the processor. People today just expect that their laptops will be connected via wireless wherever they are. For years, I’ve been a very mobile user at Intel, and for a long time, I was a very heavy user of dialup networking. Recently, I had to use dialup and discovered that I actually had forgotten how to use it. I simply expect that I’ll be able to get on a broadband wireless network wherever I am in the world. It’s made a huge difference to how I work and live, and that’s been the case with a lot of mobile workers. Now it’s becoming more and more the case for ordinary consumers.

What are some of the big challenges out there for the industry generally?

Ease of use is a big challenge for all of us. One of the things we demonstrated at Spring 2006 Intel Developer Forum (IDF) was seamless roaming. Today, several infrastructure providers and carriers offer Wi-Fi or 3G services but most of these providers have different ways of authenticating users. So when you sit down to use one of these networks, your first problem is how to tell the provider who you are and how you’re paying for the service. We haven’t had to do that with cell phones for a long time. Now, we have to make it easier to roam between data connections, as well.

What are the specific problems that Intel is looking to solve?

We are looking forward to better and cheaper mobile computing. This is an old theme for Intel in a new space. We are asking a lot of questions: How do you build better radios? How do you build radios using the same technologies that we’ve used to build processors for years? These manufacturing technologies, which result of dramatic cost reductions and performance improvements, haven’t been used on radios. Also, how do we give radios higher speeds and better range? It’s always annoying for somebody who puts a home network in their house and discovers that if she happens to be in the den downstairs, she can’t really get a good signal. Another problem we always confront is staying within mobile devices’ relatively small footprints. You might think a laptop is a fairly big device, but it’s actually not when you pry one open and look. Worse, when you look at smaller devices, such as handhelds of various sorts, they’re downright tiny. You can’t afford to build a whole bunch of radio chips into those devices. So how do we integrate multiple radios into single chips? And how do we make them consume less power? Radios are on all the time if you want to communicate-so they’re always burning power. We’ve been very successful over the years with applying our CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technologies to processors. Why not apply these technologies to building better radios, as well?

Additional Resources

Intel is working to solve network bottlenecks to ensure data integrity in network transfers. The company reported progress in this effort at Spring 2006 IDF, where Kahn helped introduce th e “Slicing By Eight” Algorithm (SB8). The algorithm gives up to 3x CRC (Cyclic Redundancy Codes) performance, thus freeing up CPU resources. For more information, see download* the algorithm at

About the Author

Geoff Koch, a former Intel writer and editor, is a freelance writer, editor and Big 10 sports buff in Lansing, Mich. He recently co-authored "Open Source Development: A Platform Perspective". He also wrote the "Software Developer FAQ: Intel® Virtualization Technology," which describes a few of Intel’s own virtualization efforts, and "Computer Security: The Hardware/Software Solution," based on an interview with Intel security researcher Victoria Stavridou-Coleman.


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