Wi-Fi Ubiquity

ABI came out with a press release last week saying that 770 million Wi-Fi chips will ship in 2010. This is an amazing number. Where are they all going? Fortunately ABI included a bar-chart with this information in the press release. Here it is (click on it for a full-size view):

Wi-Fi chip shipments worldwide. Source: ABI

The y axis isn’t labeled, but the divisions appear to be roughly 200 million units.

This year shows roughly equal shipments going to phones, mobile PCs, and everything else. There is no category of Access Points, so presumably less of those are sold than “pure VoWi-Fi handsets.” I find this surprising, since I expect the category of pure VoWi-Fi handsets to remain moribund. Gigaset, which makes an excellent cordless handset for VoIP, stopped using Wi-Fi and went over to DECT because of its superior characteristics for this application.

There is also no listing for tablet PCs, a category set to boom; they must be subsumed under MIDs (Mobile Internet Devices).

The chart shows the portable music player category growing vigorously through 2015. iPod unit sales were down 8% year on year in 1Q10, and pretty much stagnant since 2007. ABI must be thinking that even with unit sales dropping, the attach rate of Wi-Fi will soar.

The category of “Computer Peripherals” will probably grow faster than ABI seems to anticipate. Wireless keyboards and mice use either Bluetooth or proprietary radios currently, but the new Wi-Fi alliance specification “Wi-Fi Direct” will change that. Ozmo is aiming to use Wi-Fi to improve battery life in mice and keyboards two to three-fold. Since all laptops, most all-in-one PCs and many regular desktops already have Wi-Fi built-in (that’s at least double the Bluetooth attach rate) this may be an attractive proposition for the makers (and purchasers) of wireless mice and keyboards. Booming sales of tablet PCs may further boost sales of wireless keyboards and mice.

Apple iPad has proprietary processor

Well, the Apple iPad is out. Time will tell whether its success will equal that of the iPhone, the Apple TV or the MacBook Air. I’m confident it will do better than the Newton. The announcement contained a few interesting points, the most significant of which is that it uses a new Apple proprietary processor, the A4. Some reviewers have described the iPad as very fast, and with good battery life; these are indications that the processor is power efficient. Because of its software similarities to the iPhone, the architecture is probably ARM-based, with special P.A. Semi sauce for power and speed. On the other hand, it could be a spin of the PWRficient CPU, which is PowerPC based. In that light, it is interesting to review Apple’s reasons for abandoning the Power PC in 2005. Maybe Apple’s massive increase in sales volume since then has made Intel’s economies of scale less overwhelming?

The price is right, as is an option to go without a 3G radio. The weight is double that of a Kindle, and half that of a MacBook Air.

I am disappointed that there is no user-pointing camera, because as I mentioned earlier, I think that videophone will be a major use for this class of device.

Update 3 February 2010: Linley Gwenapp wrote up some speculations in his newsletter.

Top ten uses for an Internet Tablet/Web Slate

The tablet wars are imminent, with Microsoft, Google and Apple breaking out their big guns. Here’s what you will be doing with yours later this year:

  1. Internet browser of course: think iPhone experience with a bigger screen. It will be super-fast with 802.11n in your home, and somewhat slower when you are out and about, tethering to your cell phone for wide-area connectivity. You don’t need a cellular connection in the Internet Tablet itself, though the cellcos wish you would.
  2. TV accessory: treat it as a personal picture-in-picture display. View the program guide without disturbing the other people watching the main screen. Use it for voting on shows like American Idol. Use it as a remote to change channels and set up recordings.
  3. TV replacement: a 10 inch screen at two feet is the same relative size as a 50 inch screen at ten feet. Use it with Hulu and the other streaming video services.
  4. Video iPod, but with a much nicer screen. Say goodbye to portable DVD players.
  5. VideoPhone: some Internet Tablets will have hi-res user-facing cameras and high definition microphones and speakers: the perfect Skype phone to keep on your coffee table. How about on your fridge door for an always-on video connection to the grandparents? Or in a suitable charging base, a replacement office desk phone.
  6. Electronic picture frame: sure it’s overkill for such a trivial application, but when it’s not doing anything else, why not?
  7. eBook reader: maybe not in 2010, but as screen and power technology evolve the notion of a special-function eBook reader will become as quaint as a Wang word processor. (Never heard of a Wang word processor? I rest my case.)
  8. Home remote: take a look at AMX. This kind of top-of-the-line home control will be available to the masses. Set the thermostat, set the burglar alarm, look at the front door webcam when the doorbell rings…
  9. Game console: look at all the games for the iPhone. Many of them will work on Apple’s iSlate from day one. And you can bet there will be plenty of cool games for Android, and even Windows-based Internet Tablets.
  10. PND display: Google Maps on the iPhone is miraculously good, but it’s not perfect. The display is way too small for effective in-car navigation. It’s possible that some Internet Tablets will have GPS chips in them (GPS only adds a few dollars to the bill of materials), but for this application there’s no need. Tether it to your cell phone for the Internet connectivity and the GPS, and use the tablet for display and input only.

2010 will be the year of the Internet Tablet. The industry has pretty much converged on the form factor: ten-inch-plus screen, touch interface, Wi-Fi connectivity. What’s a little more up in the air are minor details that will provide differentiation, like cellular connectivity, cameras, speakers and microphones. Apple will jump-start the category, but there will quickly be a slew of contenders at sub-$200 price points.

Several technology advances have converged to make now the right time. Low-cost, low energy ARM processors like the Qualcomm Snapdragon have enough processing muscle to drive PC-scale applications, and their pricing piggy-backs on the manufacturing scale of phones. 802.11n is fast enough for responsive web-based applications and HD video streaming. LCD screens continue to get cheaper. Personal Wi-Fi networks enable tethering and wireless keyboards for when you need them.

This also the perfect form factor for grade school kids. Once the screen resolutions get high enough books will disappear almost overnight. No more backs bent under packs laden with schoolbooks. Just this.