WiMax is hardly a household word, but the industry is starting to show signs it has hit a groove, especially now that commercial availability...
CHICAGO — WiMax is hardly a household word, but the industry is starting to show signs it has hit a groove, especially now that commercial availability is imminent.
The evidence of the industry’s progress is accumulating this week at WiMax World, the annual gathering focused on the emerging wireless broadband technology, which promises to provide Internet access anywhere and all the time.
Unlike past shows, there’s evidence all around of gadgets and devices being built to use WiMax. PC cards, for instance, are expected to be especially popular at first to provide connectivity to laptops.
Another category of devices under development are ultra-mobile PCs, or mobile Internet devices, which are about the size of a VHS tape and function somewhere between a laptop and a mobile phone.
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Samsung displayed a “butterfly” device that has three folding sections, including two that form a full keyboard used with a small screen.
Nokia has an ultra-mobile device expected to launch next year with Intel technology inside. It was in the dashboard of a Mini Cooper as an entertainment center.
The technology common to these devices — WiMax — is similar to Wi-Fi but covers greater distances and is considered higher quality because it uses licensed airwaves not generally available to the public.
The high-profile names building U.S. networks are Kirkland-based Clearwire, founded by wireless entrepreneur Craig McCaw, and Sprint Nextel, the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier.
Clearwire offers a similar service based on an early version of the technology, but true WiMax — not expected until early next year — promises to enable people to easily use it on the go.
Speakers and exhibitors at this year’s conference have expressed confidence the technology is gaining momentum.
It is still largely unknown whether WiMax will be a success and whether consumers will demand Internet on the go. But until this year, it wasn’t even known for sure whether the networks would be built.
A number of steps that the industry has taken explain its confidence.
For instance, it was no more than a year ago that Sprint Nextel chose the WiMax standard to roll out a high-speed wireless network.
Since then, the number of companies interested in the technology has grown.
Last year, 4,000 people attended the conference. That number nearly doubled this year to 7,800, not counting any last-minute attendees.
The number of exhibitors also jumped, to 350 from 250 in 2006.
“The horse is out of the stable and it’s running down the track, and there’s no other horse in sight,” said Barry West, Sprint Nextel’s chief technology officer, during his keynote Wednesday, the first day of the show.
At Chicago’s McCormick Place, the exhibit hall has grown to about the size of a football field. The room is full of companies showing off gadgets, heavy outdoor radio equipment and even content and applications designed to run on handheld devices.
Adding to the anticipation is Sprint Nextel and Clearwire’s plans to jointly launch commercial networks available early next year.
Sprint Nextel plans to roll out trial markets in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., as early as December. Its commercial launch is expected in April.
Sprint Nextel has branded its WiMax service with the name Xohm. The brand is expected to be shared with Clearwire, which has partnered with Sprint Nextel to roll out a nationwide network.
Together, the two companies plan to cover 100 million people by the end of 2008.
“We have come a really long way in the last four to five years. We are at the end of the beginning,” Sean Maloney, an Intel executive vice president, said in a keynote Wednesday.
Maloney is frequently called the father of WiMax for being a big driver behind the technology. “Our goal over the next 12-to-18-to-24 months is to make WiMax a name on every consumers’ lips as the thing that connects them to the marvelous experiences of the Internet,” he said.
Following Maloney on stage was Padmasree Warrior, chief technology officer at Motorola, the company known for the Razr cellphone.
Motorola is building WiMax chips, network equipment and consumer devices. On stage and in meetings during the day, the company previewed what some of the devices or applications for WiMax may look like.
On stage, Warrior showed off an application that allowed a group of friends to share a video conference online to chat about a TV show being streamed in the same screen.
She demonstrated the idea live with a colleague on stage, while streaming back to colleagues at Motorola’s Schaumburg, Ill. headquarters.
Motorola showed off a Razr look-alike loaded with WiMax. It was used to easily connect to YouTube to watch videos, download a map from Google, or make a two-way video-conferencing phone call, where each user could see what the other’s camera phone was pointing at.
Warrior and other industry executives stressed WiMax technology is about extending the Internet to users wherever they are, not necessarily about inventing applications.
Maloney said WiMax is needed because the Internet has been difficult to deliver to a wireless phone because of network speeds, screen sizes and limitations set by the wireless carrier, which often dictates what consumers can or cannot do on their phone.
But with WiMax, he stressed, the goal will be open access to the Internet.
“The vast majority of Web sites aren’t adapted for mobile devices, and I don’t think that Web sites or the Internet are going to adapt,” he said. “It is the mobile environment that needs to adapt to the Web, instead of the Internet adapting to mobile.”
Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org