The future of wireless is bright, said Thomas H. Lee, delivering a keynote address June 21 at the International Microwave Symposium in Montréal. Lee, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford currently on leave as he serves as director of microsystems technology at DARPA, used his address to predict the future by extrapolating from previous innovations.

Perhaps a bright future for wireless seems obvious. After all, Lee delivered his remarks just as the iPhone neared its fifth birthday. Henry Blodget, the former Wall Street analyst, noted June 27 in his Business Insider blog that the iPhone generates nearly $25 billion in revenue per quarter, making the iPhone business itself bigger than Microsoft. The iPhone, Blodget contended, is the most successful and disruptive product ever.

But Blodget has received pushback on his claim from observers including Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic. In a June 30 post, Thompson suggested the nuclear bomb, cotton gin, and steam engine were all more disruptive, and he added, “…the iPhone might not even be the most disruptive technology with the word ‘phone’ in it.”

Lee, speaking at the IMS, didn’t address the iPhone’s disruptiveness directly, but he did describe the cell-phone niche as a strong vertical market with little room to grow. With 6 billion mobile subscribers today out of a population of 7 billion, he said, there are few subscribers left for carriers to acquire.

The iPhone may ultimately become a victim of its own success. But it’s also the beneficiary of the wireless technologies that preceded it. Lee traced the evolutions of today’s communications technology from the origins of telegraphy and Marconi’s “age of spark.” He continued by describing Reginald Fessenden’s achievement of “RF” voice communications using an electromechanical approach operating at less than 100,000 cycles per second.

Innovation proceeded apace, Lee said, with Le De Forest’s discovery that vacuum tubes could be made to oscillate. Subsequently, Edwin Howard Armstrong helped develop the superheterodyne receiver architecture.

World War II, Lee said, saw the large-scale use of personal mobile wireless devices. In the 1980s, AT&T considered cell phones as a way to milk rich customers. AT&T commissioned McKinsey & Company to forecast cell-phone penetration in the United States by the year 2000, and the consulting firm came up with 900,000—less than 1% of the actual figure.

Although person-to-person wireless communications now are ubiquitous, Lee said, business conditions will spur on innovation. Carriers’ average revenue per user is declining, he said, even as there are fewer non-users to attract. Carriers need to add conversants, Lee said, and those new conversants will have to be objects.

Many objects, Lee said, have data that you might want to interact with, and the next step in communications evolution will be M2M, people to machine, and machine to people. Indeed, what Lee called the Internet of Everything, or IoE, revolution is happening now—we just don’t recognize it yet, because you don’t recognize exponential increases until the exponential function rises above the noise floor.

There will be challenges to driving IoE, Lee said. With IoE, aggregate demand will be high (there are many objects), but there won’t be strong verticals that will readily attract investment. Nevertheless, Lee suggested IoE proliferation is inevitable.

IoE represents the fourth age of wireless, Lee concluded, and it will rely on a variety of technologies extending back to the first wireless age. Indeed, he said, “The best is yet to be.”

Rick Nelson
Executive Editor
[email protected]

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