Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Peer-to-peer Wi-Fi: Talking Wi-Fi Direct with Broadcom VP Michael Hurlston

Late last year the Wi-Fi Alliance introduced the Wi-Fi Direct peer-to-peer specification that allows Wi-Fi devices to talk to each other without the need for wireless access points (hot spots). Wi-Fi Direct-certified network can be one-to-one or one-to-many and support typical Wi-Fi speeds, which can be as high as 250 Mbps and have a range up to 200 meters. The connections are secure in that content cannot be shared without your permission, and since most Wi-Fi Direct-certified devices will be power-sensitive, and in many cases, battery-powered, the specification underlying the program defines new power saving mechanisms.

Related products are expected to hit the market during the Computex Taipei 2011 time frame, so Digitimes checked in with Michael Hurlston, vice president and general manager for the Home and Wireless Networking Business Unit at Broadcom, to learn more about how the technology can affect the Wi-Fi market.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about Wi-Fi Direct and how it is expected to be used?

A: As you know, Wi-Fi Direct is a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi technology that eliminates the need for an access point. So if I am trying to connect a handset to a PC or a TV I would not need to go through any intermediary, thus eliminating much of the hassle of using Wi-Fi.

There are a couple of interesting usage cases for the technology and they take into account the current trends in computing, namely that an increasing amount of computing in done through mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, that are not traditional PCs; and that users are looking to share increasingly large amounts of data, mostly multimedia.

Broadcom has been excited about the tablet trend, as we have a tremendous amount of wireless connectivity content going into tablets. I would say that we certainly have more than a 90% share of the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth going into the tablet platform. This is extremely important because it sets us up for helping to drive the adoption of Wi-Fi Direct.

Q: Can you provide a usage scenario?

A: Think about a friend coming to your house and the two of you want to use your TV or tablet to watch a video stored on her smartphone. Rather than having to waste time configuring your home network settings to share the content, the standard implementation of Wi-Fi Direct allows for a relatively straight forward sharing between devices, on the order of Bluetooth.

Your guest would simply press a search button and any devices enabled for Wi-Fi Direct would pop up on the handset screen. It would then be as simple as simple as clicking on an icon to make the Wi-Fi connection so that the video could then be viewed on your Wi-Fi Direct enabled TV or transferred to your tablet.

In terms of being practical, this not only eliminates the need to tinker with network settings, but it is also much faster. One thing to remember when using Wi-Fi is that two client devices need to be connected to the access point at the same time, so bandwidth will be shared and the transmission slowed. Wi-Fi Direct cuts the required bandwidth in half because the two client devices connect directly with each other.

In the case I just mentioned, Wi-Fi Direct is preferable to using the established network, but another notable usage scenario would be when the technology is used to connect two client devices when a network connection was not available at all. With Wi-Fi Direct you can easily share in a networked environment that wasn't previously possible.

Q: As you mentioned, it sounds as if Wi-Fi Direct is kind of like enhanced Bluetooth connectivity, operating at longer distances and higher bandwidths.

A: Wi-Fi Direct delivers a high-bandwidth Bluetooth experience. The beauty of Bluetooth is that the peer-to- peer pairing is relatively simple. The ability to pair a Bluetooth headset to a handset is a relatively straightforward experience, not a lot of things need to happen to make that pairing occur. What Wi-Fi Direct promises is that same pairing experience but at a much higher bandwidth. With Bluetooth, users were only pushing a megabit of data, so applications beyond voice were relatively limited. What Wi-Fi Direct purports to do is deliver that same kind of experience with video, data, pictures or other types of multimedia at Wi-Fi speeds.

Q: When can we expect to see Wi-Fi Direct enabled devices and how will the technology spread through the ecosystem?

A: Broadcom enabled cell phones were the first to go through the certification process by the Wi-Fi Alliance and we expect those products to be on the market and available to consumers around the Computex timeframe. The same goes for Wi-Fi enabled tablets. Again we were the first company to have our silicon go through the certification process in a finished tablet form factor, and we expect related products to be available to consumers around the end of May or early June.

Devices will come preloaded with Wi-Fi Direct software and, more importantly, simple software upgrades will allow other devices to become Wi-Fi Direct compatible. Therefore, should vendors decide to choose to make Wi-Fi Direct available, even existing devices that are not Wi-Fi Direct compatible can be upgraded.

Over time the technology will be adopted by every cell phone manufacturer and every tablet manufacturer. However, I think TV makers will come onboard a little later. We are really talking about the end of this year and into the Lunar New Year before you see TVs that are Wi-Fi Direct enabled. We are expecting probably the same cadence for PCs.

Q: You are talking about pretty fast rollouts though.

A: I think it will roll out rapidly for two reasons. On the one hand we will see this because of the rapid rise of the portable form factor as a major computing platform. Using portable devices such as handsets for data connectivity is becoming increasingly common and there is incentive to use a peer-to-peer model, as long as it is simple to use, rather than the telecom network to transmit data.

Look at a situation such in a classroom or school, where students with smartphones in close proximity will be able to quickly share a viral video without having to utilize the telephone network or depend on a hot spot. This is especially beneficial and less stressful on the network in markets such as Southeast Asia where the infrastructure is less mature.

Probably an even more important reason for quick adoption is the fact that Wi-Fi Direct will simply be a software upgrade. Basically we are talking about a no cost kind of option that will be pretty much a check box feature on devices. That is obviously very attractive to OEMs. I expect they will get behind it very quickly because there is no pain for them to implement and it does offer significant value to their end customers, the consumer. We are expecting a very fast light switch.

Q: How will you be highlighting Wi-Fi Direct at Computex?

A: One way we are going to highlight Wi-Fi Direct is by sharing some of the usage scenarios. During my keynote at the Mobile Technology and Application Design Forum on June 1, I won't just be flipping slides but I'm planning on showing some interesting cases, such as using Wi-Fi Direct for low latency gaming with a tablet and a PC. We may also show phone-to-phone sharing in a classroom scenario - two people able to move content from one phone to another, no sleight of hand. Broadcom will be one of the first companies to do a live demo of the technology. In the Broadcom booth we'll be showing Wi-Fi-direct enabled products, such as TV products, tablets and some handset reference designs.

Q: How will Wi-Fi Direct affect Taiwan makers?

A: If you look at the WLAN industry, ever since I became involved in this business 10 years ago Taiwan has certainly been a leader in terms of producing devices. And while different market segments currently support Wi-Fi at varying levels, Broadcom believes Wi-Fi Direct will help these makers push Wi-Fi even further into customer product portfolios - deeper into the stack of TVs, deeper into mobile handsets, deeper into printers - and most of the modules in these devices, regardless of the brand, are going to be almost 100% Taiwan built.

However, I think there is another even bigger factor that will help drive sales of Wi-Fi Direct in the future, and that is the opportunity to enable a whole new set of devices - household appliances - through Wi-Fi Direct.

For example, the United States has been promoting the Energy Star standard for classifying energy efficient consumer products. In order to encourage the design and purchase of energy efficient appliances, such as refrigerators that conserve power, local utilities basically deliver rebates to consumers that purchase qualified Energy Star products.

An interesting recent development in this area is that while efficiency certification requirements are becoming stricter, makers are also now able to more easily receive certification if networking is introduced into the products. So rather than only pushing the efficiency of the device by developing more efficient motors in dryers or more efficient cooling mechanisms in refrigerators, makers see implementing networking as an attractive method to achieve the Energy Star rating. However, these makers have been struggling with ease of use and how to get the appliance connected online. This is where we come in. I mentioned previously that Wi-Fi Direct would have a usage model similar to Bluetooth. Look at something like a Bluetooth headset, which may be the dumbest device out there. It is very simple to connect such a device and it should be just as simple to connect a washing machine to the network.

Broadcom expects that networking will be an attractive choice for appliance makers and Wi-Fi Direct can help easily create a positive feedback situation whereby connected appliances can share useful information such as registration information, status updates for reliability and warranty in terms of parts.

Wi-Fi Direct can help drive this virtuous cycle because it is ideal in terms of ease of use. This trend with white goods is just starting and we're only at the tip of the iceberg. This year at CES we saw a number of appliance makers show related products and the benefits of the Energy Star certification will help provide market momentum. This has kind of kicked off a phenomena where there is market incentive to get networking into appliances and it is not necessarily consumer driven.

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