Wires and Wireless

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, November 2012

In the beginning, all real-time distance communication was wireless – bonfires, smoke signals, semaphores, and so forth.  Centuries of wireless went by before Samuel F B Morse pioneered telegraphy in 1837 with electrical transmission over wires.  Right away, the world began to fill with wires, and by the time that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1875, wires had already crossed the American continent and the Atlantic Ocean.

Wireless transmission was first demonstrated by Guglielmo Marconi in Italy in 1895.  Then in 1899 he sent the first radio signals in America from a ship covering the America’s Cup race to a receiver at a lighthouse overlooking the Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey. As I have stood at that lighthouse looking down on the bay below, I have wondered: why demonstrate wireless in this way?

I try to put myself in Marconi’s shoes.  He has this magic new box that sends telegraphy without the need for wires, and Marconi is already aspiring to be a great entrepreneur.  But what is his magic box good for, and is there a market for this thing?  After all, there are already wires everywhere of importance -- the wired telegraph has beaten him by about 60 years. The answer to my question seems to lie below me there in the bay.  There are no wires to ships at sea.

Many of Marconi’s early demonstrations and deployments featured ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship transmission, culminating in the infamous day of April 15, 1912 when the Titanic sank and Marconi’s wireless telegraphy played a critical role.  However, as the subsequent decades passed, wireless became mainly a conduit for commercial broadcast, whereas personal, point-to-point communication was almost exclusively done through wires.

After almost a century of ubiquitous wires, plans for cellular telephony began to emerge.  AT&T was pondering the same questions as Marconi – what was wireless good for, and was there a market for it?  The answers came back from a consultant: wireless phones were only good for emergency communications, and the market would be small.  But we have since learned the opposite -- that wireless seems to be good for everything and the market is huge.

I can hardly fault the consultants.  On the day that Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, I got a call from a journalist representing a large newspaper.  What did I think of Apple’s new phone?  I told him that this phone would revolutionize the wireless business and create a whole new vision of phones as smart appliances.

Well, no, I didn’t really say that, I only wish that I had.  I actually said something not worth printing either in the newspaper or here.  Apparently I had some company in this failure to see the future. I heard a designer from another cell phone maker say regretfully that their own focus groups had not liked the idea of a touch screen.  After all, the screen was too small and people didn’t have pointy little fingers.

Now after a century of wires, everything is suddenly turning wireless.  I see the forlorn public phones at airports and other public places.  I’m not even sure if they work anymore, and if you actually went to use one, passersby would look on you with pity.  Obviously, mobility and convenience are important factors, but I think that the whole idea of being tetherless is a compelling state of mind.  (My sleeping dog just looked up at me in seeming agreement.) Take for example the wireless mouse.  The little mouse is confined to its pad.  It doesn’t really go out and roam the world.  Why does it need to be wireless?  Yet I like it that way.  Give the little creature some freedom.  When I am in a hotel room there is usually a choice of wireless or wired right at the desk.  I invariably choose wireless, even though the connection quality might be worse.

The pendulum has swung, and it seems that anything that can be wireless, must be wireless.  Nevertheless, all that wireless access is but a surface coating over a gigantic, unseen, wired infrastructure beneath. As one of my research friends used to put it: “Wireless isn’t.” Moreover, broadband access has until now been almost exclusively wired.  So the curious thing is that in the last century broadcast was all wireless and personal communication all wired; now it is exactly the reverse – at least for the present, but stay tuned.