Let's do the time warp: Look back at wireless predictions

It’s astounding. Time is fleeting. Look back just 15 years or so and my, how things have changed. What were the hot tech gadgets and trends in the first few years of the 21st century? The Nokia 6610 was the best-selling cellphone in 2002; it featured text messaging — its memory could store up to 75 texts! — but didn’t have a camera or email or internet browsing. Desktop computers far outnumbered laptops. Netflix was still DVDs-by-mail only. There was no Facebook or Twitter. Remember Myspace?

This was also the time in history when Cees Links, now considered a Wi-Fi pioneer, made some bold predictions about the future in his 160-page e-book, The Spirit of Wi-Fi, along with an explanation of how the first wireless LANs were created and how an interesting, 1998 meeting with Steve Jobs changed the face of wireless communications.

Since we are now living in a new wireless world, let’s take a look at how Links’ vision compares to reality as we know it now — and get a sneak peek into what’s coming next.

Prediction #1: Smart everything

Links predicted that business people would have four gadgets to help them in their day: a computer notebook with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, a palmtop with Bluetooth, a cell phone with GPRS and Bluetooth, and a wireless headset with Bluetooth.

The results: Pretty darn close. Said Links, “I was pretty close, if you replace the palmtop with a tablet. Now you have a laptop to do real work, a tablet for convenient reading and checking the internet on the road, and a smartphone when really nonstationary.” What amazes Links the most is the demise of phone communication — more specifically, how much phone communication has been largely replaced by text messaging, successor apps like WhatsApp and group chats.

“The other remarkable thing was that in those years, we spoke a lot about videophone conversations becoming commonplace — and our concern about the amount of bandwidth they would require,” Links said. Today, videophone is (almost) free with chat communications, but selfies and Instagram posts are way more popular. It seems that some two-way conversations have been replaced with a series of one-way lobs of status communications.

Prediction #2: Cell phones and palmtops would merge

Links predicted that the number of devices would be reduced by merging the functionalities of a cell phone and palmtop.

The results: Yes, but… The palmtop and the phone did indeed integrate, and the tablet emerged. Though, as Links points out, many people may not know that the tablet, an Apple Newton, originally launched in the mid-1990s. But it never really caught on. “It was too early,” Links said, “and the proper data-communication standards and infrastructure didn’t exist yet. Also, the MCUs — the brains of the computer — weren’t powerful enough.” This required essentially another decade of development.

But Links said what he really missed was the need for a tablet: “Frankly, I was initially skeptical when tablets came out. Now I see the tablet slowly starting to take over from the laptop, in the same way that chatting is taking over from emailing. So, who knows? The days of the laptop may be numbered.”

Prediction #3: Smart watches

The results: Bingo. “Let’s not forget the watch,” Links said back in 2002, questioning if it could play a larger role in the world of technological devices beyond mere accessory or jewelry. Clearly, smart watches, like the Apple Watch, Samsung watches and Fitbit devices, have brought this reality to life.

“Honestly, I’m surprised I mentioned that a watch could be more than jewelry,” Links said today. “But indeed, the thought of making the watch more useful than for merely tracking date and time has always lingered, and it still does. I think the watch industry so far has successfully kept the electronic watch at bay for two reasons: First, a watch is still a piece of jewelry, and second, the battery life is still short.”

Fitness trackers are in a similar market position. They’re encroaching on the watch industry, but Links’ expectation is that they won’t be successful in destabilizing it, much like smart watches. “I wear a Fitbit,” Links said, “but one that is purely sensing, as a simple bracelet. I love my jewelry watch, but wearing two watches is a little pathetic. Plus, I would get totally annoyed if they weren’t indicating exactly the same time!”

New predictions: The future of Wi-Fi

Now it’s time to look forward and hear what Links thinks is in store for the future. After all, Wi-Fi was in the early stages of adoption when he wrote his book. At the time, Links described it as “a rich standard that would be with us for the coming decades and provide a solid basis for newer capabilities.”

Given that Wi Fi 6 (802.11ax) is expected this year, what do you think will come next, and what challenges will have to be solved in the future?

Links: Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11) is indeed still with us and going strong — no end of life in sight! From 802.11b to a, g, n, ac, ad and now Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), high-performance wireless technologies have been evolving from the beginning of this century. Essentially, there have always been two major drivers: good coverage in your whole house or office, and faster speed. There have been other underlying drivers, like reducing heat consumption — to avoid your smartphone from melting — and integrating functions while reducing size and price. At this moment, the need for higher data rates, bandwidth and capacity will continue, without compromising the coverage. This is in line with the fact that video continues to be more and more important. Why should it take hours to download the latest series before going on a trip?

I recently wrote a white paper, “Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax): What’s It All About?,” that discusses why higher speed, capacity and bandwidth are the key ingredients to success today. Everybody is connected on the same channel at the same time, and we always want more speed. There will be no rest for service providers!

Let’s talk about the smart home. There are multiple use cases that could be created to make the home smarter, like smart lighting, home security or lifestyle monitoring. You mentioned in your book that household applications will grow quickly once the infrastructure is in place. Is this the case today?

Links: Interestingly, the idea of low-power Wi-Fi was floating around a lot, and what we see today is that both Zigbee — which is essentially low-power Wi Fi — and Bluetooth Low Energy have established themselves; although frankly, it took longer than I expected. I think it took longer because the value proposition of Zigbee and BLE is more difficult to grasp because its value is its close connection to data management and processing, that requires a complete different way of thinking.

Normally, a company begins with the business case for a product, which drives the application space. But with the smart home, it’s the other way around — the application is driving the business case. This means it has taken longer to establish the value of the smart home, but it’s getting there, slowly but surely.

The challenge is still the infrastructure. Each application almost needs its own gateway connected to the router to have lights, sensors or smart meters connected to the internet, making implementation unnecessarily expensive. One of the larger steps forward are routers and set-top boxes with Zigbee and Bluetooth Low Energy integrated, and that’s what the industry is working on now.

I think the future of the smart home is distributed Wi-Fi, with a pod in every room serving as an access point. With Wi-Fi 6 and distributed Wi-Fi, consumers will have Wi-Fi everywhere in their home or office. Each pod can also carry wireless communication technologies, like Zigbee or Bluetooth. It will also allow command through voice activation and enable talking to the internet as a common feature in every room. This new infrastructure will help develop multiple use cases in the smart home — all using the same infrastructure.

Finally, how about some new predictions with regard to the evolution of Wi-Fi. Where do you think we’ll stand in another 15 years?

Links: There’s no shortage of demand for both higher data rates and longer battery life, so developments in this area will continue. Nowadays, I have to charge my laptop and my phone every day, which is a nuisance that I grudgingly accept. Data rates continue to be a bottleneck, but that probably needs to be extended toward system-level performance. My Wi-Fi is way faster than the cable internet link to my house, and sometimes sitting behind a very fast connection, imagining an instant reaction on mouse clicks and no waiting, makes it clear that the industry still needs to improve a lot in basic needs.

But even more exciting is the interaction between wireless connectivity and artificial intelligence. Being able to exchange data all the time — from sensors to work data to exploring thoughts and ideas for leisure or finding opportunities for relaxation and enjoyment — when it’s connected to proper guidance based from someone who “knows you” and can help, wouldn’t that be a dream we wish could come true?

Breakthroughs in human life have always come from technology inventions beyond imagination — cranes to help us lift things, wheels to move us faster than we can walk, writing to help us remember more than we can keep in our head, printing to share ideas wider and faster than we could imagine. And today, connectivity allows us to live in a healthier, more comfortable and more eco-friendly way — and to make better decisions, faster.

A connected world is a better world. Here’s to the next 15 years of Wi-Fi — no doubt it’s a future of great possibility!

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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