Electronic Design

2000s So Far...: Today Wireless, Tomorrow... Who Knows?

At the close of the 20th century, by far the most tumultuous time in human history, a mood of celebration prevailed. Great excitement was in the air, largely due to the overheated economy, and the electronics industry had been right in the middle of it. There seemed to be no end to the technological progress we'd achieved and the wealth that came along with it.

But before Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan could say "irrational exuberance," the economy nose-dived. The Internet's promise to transform society and commerce had yet to fulfill itself in a manner that met the stock market's high expectations. As the nation anxiously awaited the outcome of the most hotly contested presidential election in its history, the bears took control of Wall Street and dotcoms became dot-bombs. Then the horror of 9/11 took its toll, delivering a blow from which the world still reels.

Through it all, the technology that had driven the economy churned along. It never really let us down and it still hasn't. Thanks to the enhanced productivity that technology brings and the freedom it grants us to work and play on our own terms, it remains our best hope for recovery.

Connectivity still reigns supreme. But now its watchword is "wireless." Our information-centric economy depends on our ability to access our networks from wherever we may find ourselves with ever-increasing bandwidth. The most recent update of the wireless Ethernet standard brings data rates to 54 Mbits/s. Wireless networks are proliferating rapidly, freeing us from the tyranny of the desktop and enabling us to roam at will without losing our ties to file servers and Internet gateways.

To most people, wireless means the cell phone in their pockets. The current 2.5G technology, General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), provides data rates to 115 kbits/s. We should see 3G technology in the next year or two, providing high-speed e-mail and Internet connectivity via cell phone. Don't worry, though. You'll still be able to talk on the new handsets. Voice communication remains the killer application for cellular in the foreseeable future.

Networking can't be all wireless, though. Optical fiber-based networks have wormed their way throughout most metro areas with bandwidths spiraling to the terabit range. They're just in time, too, as media conglomerates line up to provide video-on-demand and other services that will eat bandwidth in huge gulps.

Realization of the true power of connectivity will come as more of our homes and offices are endowed with broadband connections to the Internet backbone. Fiber-to-the-home connections would be ideal, but for now, cable modems and DSL connections will become more pervasive. Applications like video conferencing, voice-over-broadband telephony, interactive gaming, and others will drive the penetration of broadband.

Now that we have begun to reap the benefits of ubiquitous connectivity, we must deal with changes that it makes. The entertainment industry, providers of so much of the content that will stream across the fiber networks, is ever mindful of piracy, causing a reshaping of the relationships between artists, audiences, and the media companies that distribute that content. For consumers, the Internet age has meant placing a degree of blind trust in technology. That trust has been slow to develop, as growth in e-commerce hasn't taken off as expected in the late nineties. Improvements in secure Web servers have helped and will continue to instill confidence in consumers to take their business online.

As always, the technology behind the Web and the infrastructure that makes it possible doesn't come out of a vacuum. Designers have more to work with than ever before. The design process itself is changing yet again. Methodologies for the creation of enormous systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) are evolving toward higher levels of abstraction. In the labs, test instrumentation has become software-definable, morphing into different kinds of instruments through the download of application-specific measurement templates. Design for manufacturability is a must: Product lifecycles are too short to allow any miscues.

With silicon fabrication technology heading below 100 nm, ICs continue to astound us with the level of integration. Process advancements have brought us to microprocessors running at gigahertz clock rates. Memories continue to improve, with 4-Gbit SDRAMs on the way.

New ferroelectric memory technologies promise to do away with the lifespan limitations of flash memory. Reprogrammable logic is making its way onto standard-cell and full-custom ASICs, giving designers wiggle room to customize logic after fabrication. Standing behind all of these technologies are continuing advances in power management and battery technology that will enable our cell phones, PDAs, and pocket PCs to run longer and on lower voltages.

The hallmarks of the electronics age have been two-pronged: information processing and communications. Together these disciplines have totally transformed the world, making it much smaller and faster paced. In certain respects, during the 50-year lifespan of Electronic Design, it has come full circle: Wireless was king 50 years ago in the form of radio, and it has taken the throne again today. But this time, wireless is a proactive technology. Back then, we passively received information that was broadcast to us by others. Today, we're in the driver's seat, using the tools at our disposal to reach out for information that we need. The sources for that information are as many as are the means for accessing it.

It took man many thousands of years to go from caves to the modern era, while it took less than 10 years from an American president's challenge to put a man on the moon. Consider the progress in the past five decades, from vacuum tubes to transistors, microprocessors, computers, and a global communication network. It seems that only our imaginations can limit us.

Click here for several examples of the special photos in this picture album.

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