Mobile phones and wireless local area networks (WLANs) draw more attention, but short range wireless technologies have tremendous potential. Bluetooth and wireless USB enable a wide range of gadgets to communicate with each other, personal computers, and electronic kiosks. ZigBee and near field communications (NFC) portend sensors and controllers embedded in our environment and even our bodies.
Short range wireless technologies are designed to provide communications over small distances—from tens of feet down to an inch or less—with levels of security, low cost, convenience, and long battery life not attainable using other wireless solutions. The goal is to make wireless so inconspicuous and inexpensive that it becomes a pervasive feature of not only mobile phones and notebook PCs, but everything from digital cameras to advertising displays to heart pacemakers to the doors and windows in homes and offices.
Bluetooth and wireless USB could be headed for a showdown. Bluetooth was primarily conceived to enable mobile phones to communicate locally with personal computers and each other for tasks such as configuring the phone, synchronizing address books, and mobile commerce. Though Bluetooth has finally gained market traction after more than a decade of development, mobile phones and PCs have evolved over that period, as well. The universal serial bus (USB) has become a popular solution for connecting a wide assortment of peripherals to personal computers. Wireless USB enjoys a performance advantage over Bluetooth: wireless USB runs 110 Mbits/s and faster, while the current Bluetooth 2.0 specification runs just 2.1 Mbits/s. With more and more mobile devices downloading music and video content, speed becomes crucial.
But don’t write off Bluetooth just yet. A big challenge for short range wireless technologies is achieving critical mass in the market; Bluetooth is the only one of the short range wireless technologies I’m discussing that has accomplished this. Plans are in the works for adding high speed and ultra low power to the Bluetooth standard.
ZigBee and near field communication (NFC) standards have been in development for some time. Though products are just coming to market, they address sizable opportunities such as mobile commerce and home security. Because these technologies are designed to consume minimal power, they offer intriguing possibilities for sensors embedded in our environment and even our bodies. If just one of these applications takes off, it could quickly demand millions of devices.
I recently spoke with executives at two companies pioneering short range wireless: Terry Moore, CEO of MCCI Corp. and Cees Links, CEO of GreenPeak Technologies.
MCCI Corporation (www.mcci.com) is moving aggressively into wireless USB—having already produced software connecting hundreds of millions of mobile devices to PCs via USB cables. Wireless USB is even more compelling: it eliminates cables and docking units, reduces the number of physical ports required, and is ideal for nomadic devices. The challenge is producing wireless USB solutions that are secure, easy to configure, and reliable. Given MCCI’s considerable experience connecting nomadic devices via USB cables, the company is well positioned to serve the emerging wireless USB market.
GreenPeak Technologies (www.greenpeak.com) is developing ultra low power wireless modules for sense and control applications. Cees Links, a veteran of the wireless LAN market, believes that installation and maintenance concerns have inhibited market development. Needed are wireless devices that can run ten years off coin-size batteries or—better yet—devices that can harvest energy from their surroundings.
MCCI and GreenPeak are developing short range solutions with long range ramifications. If wireless USB catches on, then we can expect nearly all portable electronic devices to connect to PCs and the Internet. That, in turn, could engender new devices (such as electronic shopping assistants) and enhance existing devices (for example, a wrist watch with built-in music player). And if ultra low power ZigBee takes off, it could dramatically increase network density, with each Internet-connected PC branching off into dozens of sensors and controllers.
The United States government is opening a new front in an undeclared war. Europe’s technocrats and Asia’s crony capitalists are investigating Intel Corporation for anti-competitive practices. And now the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has decided it wants to get in on the fun.
At issue is Intel’s practice of lowering its prices to compete more successfully against Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD). AMD says Intel is offering prices it can’t match without losing money. There have also been allegations that Intel threatens to punish customers if they buy from AMD. Intel insists that it has done nothing illegal.
I find it hard to believe that in the current environment of litigation and investigation that a leading vendor such as Intel would threaten customers. Nor do I think Intel would dump products on the market at below cost in an attempt to drive AMD out of the business. One reason I’m skeptical is that with 86,000 employees and $120 billion in market capitalization, the risks to Intel are simply unacceptable.
But the main reason I’m skeptical is that these charges and investigations are part of what has become a familiar pattern. A number of leading U.S. technology firms have been or are being investigated by the European Commission (EC) including Rambus, Qualcomm, and Microsoft. Now consider the fact that throughout the 1990s Qualcomm’s CDMA technology was barred from the European market. And add to that the fact that the EC recently fined Microsoft $357 million.
Not surprisingly, rival companies are eager to file complaints with the EC. If you are having trouble competing with the market leader for customers, why not try to undermine their business model instead? An EC investigation ties up the leader’s resources, sullies their reputation, and could end up costing them a bundle.
The complaint in the EC investigation of Qualcomm is that the firm offers discounts to customers that both license its CDMA technology and buy its chips. The result is that Qualcomm is simultaneously accused of charging too much (for licenses) and too little (for licenses plus chips). Though the FTC is not investigating Qualcomm, the U.S.’s International Trade Commission (ITC) has banned importation of Qualcomm chips found to infringe a Broadcom patent.
To wit, the U.S. government has joined hands with European protectionists and business opportunists at home and abroad to wage war against leading U.S. technology companies. And that’s not all: the government is also waging war against entire technology sectors. In his book Medicine by Design, author Fen Montaigne describes how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is strangling startup companies pursuing promising tissue-engineering implants.
I’m not saying that big corporations can do no wrong. But Intel is answerable to several parties: its employees, its shareholders, its customers, and the U.S. courts. Try demanding that the FTC be investigated for abuse of power.
We the people owe our prosperity to American entrepreneurs. And we owe our freedoms to the Founding Father’s vision of limited government. It’s time to reclaim both.
The fundamentals of atomic bomb design and operation are not secrets. But is it inevitable that belligerent and undemocratic countries will develop nuclear weapons?
I don’t think so. The basic design may be well known, but producing sufficiently enriched uranium or plutonium requires a major industrial effort. There are still some secrets about building a working weapon with maximum yield. And quickly delivering a nuclear weapon over a long distance requires advanced missile technology.
The biggest mistake we can make is to assume that the threat of a massive counterstrike is sufficient deterrence. It’s not at all clear that Western countries would respond to a limited nuclear strike by annihilating the aggressor. We’ve seen in recent years that some Muslim extremists welcome death. Iranian cleric Rafsanjani even presented the cold-blooded calculation that while one nuclear weapon would wipe out Israel, the Muslim world would suffer “damages only” from a counterstrike.
Nuclear-armed rogue states are part of the bigger problem of criminal use of technology. There is no way to keep technology out of the hands of the bad guys. But there are ways to prevent or thwart criminal use. The good guys enjoy a strategic advantage: access (often exclusive) to the most advanced technology.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program is to develop weapons of mass destruction. Iran is one of the top three countries in terms of proven oil and natural gas reserves and, therefore, has little incentive for developing nuclear power. Russia is providing the fuel for Iran’s only nuclear power reactor. Iran is building a heavy water-moderated reactor, the only purpose of which appears to be the production of weapons-grade plutonium. There is also evidence that Iran is researching high explosives (for detonation) and nuclear warheads (for delivery).
That does not mean, however, that Iran has near-term plans to nuke Israel or even test a nuclear weapon. There are several possible scenarios. Iran may be looking to achieve the kind of nuclear ambiguity that Israel possesses in order to intimidate foreign opponents. Iran may be betting the threat of nuclear annihilation will demoralize Israelis. Or Iran may simply believe that mastery of nuclear technology will make it the world’s first Muslim superpower.
Or perhaps Iran’s leaders do plan to nuke Israel. Iranian leaders’ obsession with Israel is pathological. Iran openly supports Palestinian terrorists. It’s well known that Hezbollah is Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon. Plus, Iran’s leaders are vocal Holocaust deniers. It’s unwise to assume Iran would not nuke Israel just because such an act would be abhorrent to most people.
Can anything be done to stop rogue states like Iran from developing nuclear weapons? Technological progress works in rogue states’ favor, making what was once considered highly advanced technology more accessible. But technological progress also works to the advantage of those trying to stop rogue states. Satellites can be used to monitor industrial activity. Global networks can be used to detect and obstruct financing, procurement, and research. Technology can also be used to support domestic opponents. And if necessary, precision weapons can be used to destroy or disrupt the development of nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems, or to weaken ruling cliques.
If democratic countries can muster the will, they can draw a red line beyond which undemocratic countries are not allowed to pass. But it can only work if a system is put in place with a sophisticated monitoring system; clearly defined violations; and a series of escalating and timely responses. Otherwise, it's not only inevitable that rogue states will develop nuclear weapons--it's inevitable that those weapons will find their way into the hands of terrorists.