Extreme mobility

The ups and downs of the tech industry are well noted, but even in seemingly slow times, companies are hard at work at breaking barriers--and miniaturizing processors for Lilliputians.

Technology often looks a lot like a roller coaster, with its ups and downs sometimes ridiculously exaggerated. With the brakes seemingly applied by an unforgiving economy, it might seem like tech development has slowed down, too, catching its breath before yet another dizzying ascent.

But the truth is that tech companies are usually most active during the lulls, doing what it takes to have the speed to pin your ears back on the next wild ride.

At Comdex in Las Vegas, two companies particularly exemplify the behind-the-scenes action that's the mark of solid tech development. One is a telecom giant seeking to realign some of its core businesses, and the other is fledgling firm based in Sweden.

Agere, the Lucent spinoff, announced that it's developed a new Wi-Fi chipset that can achieve a theoretical throughput of 162Mbps at a 5GHz frequency--nearly three times faster than anything currently on the market. Agere has effectively bundled several 802.11a transmitters and antennas into its chipset. To be sure, these chips are a long way from production but, assuming they perform as advertised and wireless equipment vendors feel the need for speed, they could appear in products sometime in 2004. And if they can deliver data packets at anything approaching their rated max, these chipsets could conceivably find their into network infrastructures.

Perhaps not the heady stuff of 162Mbps transmissions, another Agere technology also impressed. The company has managed to create what it calls a multi-mode chip that's about an inch square, barely rises above the board its installed on, and supports the a, b, and g varieties of 802.11.

Small, Swedish style
While not challenging any speed records, Sweden's Cypak has a leg up on the competition when it comes doing things small. They've developed a microprocessor that's a mere speck of a thing--the size of a grain of rice, as they describe it. This miniscule CPU has power management, 32KB of flash memory, and 32 analog inputs, all built in. Cypak's lab has also conjured up a conductive ink that it can use to create the circuits for their wee chip. At Comdex, the company demonstrated its technology embedded in a piece of cardboard used as a medication dispenser. As each tablet is removed from the card, the date and time is recorded; on a panel with another input area, users touch one of several dots to enter information about their condition at the time pills are taken. The package can then be placed on a small, flat reader device to upload all the data the cardboard computer collected.

Cypak also demonstrated how its technology could be used in a smart card--they call it a smarter card. The card can be used like any other smart card to provide identity for the first level of authentication, but can then require that a PIN also be entered on the card's keypad--effectively, the second level of authentication.

All of this is done with economy in mind; for example, a basic reader device could go for as little as $6 or $8. Given the size of the processor and the ink-based circuitry, it's conceivable that Cypak could manufacture disposable computers--check your e-mail, acknowledge an appointment, and then toss the whole thing.

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