2012 Intel Developer Forum (IDF) was typified by a forward-looking attitude. Thursday's closing keynote maintained the trend, with its focus converging on the future of wireless technology.
Many forthcoming advances were described during CTO Justin Rattner's presentation, but wireless gigabit, or WiGig, will be one of the first to hit the market, with associated products likely to materialize by the end of 2013. It may also be one of the most significant of the new technologies; the wireless specification permits wireless data transfers up to a blistering 7 Gbps--10 times faster than the best Wi-Fi networks currently manage.
The speed comes with a catch, though: the technology primarily supports short-range transfers, such as those between a laptop and nearby peripherals. Don't expect a WiGig network that beams optimal coverage to every inch of a home or office.
Still, WiGig's speeds are tantalizing. It achieves the supercharged transmission rates by operating in the 60-GHz frequency band, which has more spectrum available than the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands on which most Wi-Fi-enabled devices currently rely. Not all WiGig devices will enjoy these speeds, however. Speed and power usually strike an inverse relationship, and the Wireless Gigabit Alliance, which oversees and develops the specification, states "some products will be designed for high performance, while some will be optimized for low power consumptions." Even so, the Alliance claims that all WiGig-enabled equipment should be "capable of at least gigabit transfer rates."
At IDF, Wireless Gigabit Alliance chairman Ali Sadri joined Rattner to demonstrate how an Ultrabook could wirelessly sync to other devices--such as a docking stations, network drives, keyboards, and monitors--at high speeds. Sadri stated that certification will commence around the middle of next year. The ensuing WiGig products will be backward-compatible with existing IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi devices, meaning that when a high-speed 60-GHz signal cannot be maintained, the connection will switch to one of the other bands.
[ How does Intel fit into the post-PC era? See Intel's Search For Relevance On Display At IDF. ]
Gartner VP Ken Dulaney said in a phone interview that the IDF demonstration somewhat evokes wireless USB, which he said "didn't do well." He predicted, however, that WiGig could succeed because it boasts "enough oomph, a good frequency band, and lots of bandwidth."
As mentioned, WiGig works best at close distances. Though the specification includes built-in support for beamforming, which allows wireless communications at ranges beyond 10 meters, WiGig signals are easily blocked or disrupted, limiting how the tech might be applied. Despite the limitiation, the specification includes other noteworthy capabilities such as wireless implementation of DisplayPort and HDMI interfaces--a big plus for users who stream video between local devices.
Dulaney stated that blocked signals shouldn't be a problem within a very short range but that cost could be a roadblock to enterprise adoption. "What's it gonna cost you? $100 more, forget it--just buy a wire," he declared, adding, "It's not a necessity to get a wireless monitor."
WiGig is relatively imminent but Rattner also addressed wireless' longer-term prospects: "Moore's Law radios," so called because they translate many of the analogue components in Wi-Fi transceivers into the digital realm. This change allows the radios to enjoy perks enjoyed by CPUs, namely Moore's Law staples such as progressively better performance, lower costs, and smaller sizes.
Current Wi-Fi radios are typically housed on a separate chip from the main processors because the analogue components haven't shrunk at the same pace as the digital ones. Intel's Radio Integration Lab, however, hopes to change that with its Rosepoint system-on-a-chip platform, which places Moore's Law transceivers on a single die alongside the processors. The resulting scalability could engender the product design flexibilities necessary for the Internet of Things to become reality. This concept, which Intel representatives mentioned throughout the conference, envisions a world in which all computing devices, from smartphones to vending machines, are connected.
The Rosepoint technology is still in a relatively incipient stage and might not be widely deployed for several years. Still, Dulaney sees potential in "software-defined" radios such as those Intel is envisioning. He said such radios share and reallocate spectrum more efficiently than current systems. "A lot of frequency goes unused, so why not share it?" he asked, stating that certain critical devices, such as satellites, could be given priority while permitting other gadgets to use bandwidth. "That's the future," he asserted.