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Will Embedded Wi-Fi Lead to Problems?

Dallas, TX-based Texas Instruments made waves with a flurry of announcements unveiling chips aimed at the burgeoning demand for 802.11 networking at home and in the office. TI first released a new chip designed to reduce the most vexing problem for devices seeking to add portability: battery life. Devices ranging from your cell phone to the 802.11-enabled PDA in your pocket spend around 95 percent of their time idle, waiting for a call to be placed or some other action. Add onto this the drain created from Wi-Fi and battery life becomes critical.

After all, when 802.11 was originally conceived designers never envisioned portable, battery-powered devices such as cell phones, laptops and PDAs adopting the wireless networking technology.

TI says its new chip, set to ship by the end of the year and into products at the start of 2003, extends battery life by drastically lessening the power demand of a Wi-Fi adapter.

The TI new chip also shrinks in size, making Wi-Fi adapters more form-fitting when used in cards for laptop computers and PDAs, according to the company.

Along with the new Wi-Fi chip, TI revealed it plans to consolidate the many separate wireless phone functions now requiring individual chips. The usual four chips and 180 components will shrink to one chip and 25 components, according to Thomas Engibous, CEO at TI. The single chip is expected in 2004.

Texas Instruments said the new chip would support Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi. Although it leads the world in shipping chips for phones, TI comes in fourth place in the Wi-Fi marketplace, behind Agere Systems, Intersil and Philips Semiconductors. The Texas chipmaker first entered the Wi-Fi market after buying WLAN developer Alantro in 2000.

Qualcomm (which earlier this summer said there's a possibility it will embed Wi-Fi in the chips it makes for cell phones) and TI both took heart from traditional mobile phone service provider T-Mobile offering their phone customers Wi-Fi access, as well as from Nokia's plans to sell Wi-Fi enabled phones.

Allen Nogee, a senior analyst at In-Stat/MDR, predicts the embedded 802.11 market will reach 10.8 million devices by 2004.

Intel Inside?

TI isn't alone in its enthusiasm over embedded wireless networking. Intel will begin manufacturing its own dual-band 802.11a/802.11b chipset this fall, for laptops and desktops, according to Russ Craig, an analyst tracking the semiconductor industry for the Aberdeen Group.

While Wi-Fi alone will not pull the semiconductor industry from its doldrums, the move to embedded 802.11 "makes for a very nice growth segment," according to Craig.

At its Fall Intel Developer Forum this week in San Jose, Calif., Intel made announcements surrounding its latest forays into Wi-Fi chips.

Embedded Thorns?

Is the trend to embedded Wi-Fi a bed of roses for the networking standard, or are there some hidden thorns? Isaac Ro, a wireless analyst for the Aberdeen Group, believes the future is mixed.

Ro believes that, at first, consumers may find embedded Wi-Fi products a Pandora's Box of incompatible brands and components. Consumers will also find embedded Wi-Fi bringing inexpensive wireless networking.

As heavyweight chipmakers move into the Wi-Fi market and the trend toward embedded 802.11 continues, the competitive landscape will be altered, putting smaller vendors such as LinkSys at a disadvantage, says Ro.

With Wi-Fi expected to become part of everything from phones to home entertainment centers, how far will the move to embed 802.11 extend? "You are not going to have a Wi-Fi fridge," Ro confidently predicts.