Apple, Intel Looking to WiMAX?

When the news broke last week that Apple Computer and Intel have been involved in discussions of some type, most industry watchers assumed the Mac maker was interested in porting the Mac OS to run on Intel chips.

Analyst John Yunker of Byte Level Research, however, has a much different take. He believes the companies are getting together to discuss WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), as he explains in a recent blog post. "Intel is betting a lot on WiMAX right now," he told The Mac Observer.

WiMAX is a broadband wireless technology that many believe could replace cable and DSL Internet access as a last-mile solution, especially in areas that donit already have copper lines laid down. Inside the home, however, Mr. Yunker said "many techs believe WiMAX will make a good indoor solution for streaming things like high-definition TV."

Coupled with recent speculation that Apple wants to get into the business of selling downloadable video, he sees a solution more viable than the current 802.11b/g standard employed by AirPort and AirPort Extreme, which he said "could do the trick, but the concern is over interference. WiMAX is optimized to avoid interference, even with multiple transmitters operating at the same frequency."

John Yunker
John Yunker: "Intel is betting on WiMAX, and Apple likes to be a few steps ahead."
Mr. Yunker envisions a scenario in which Apple creates a device that uses an Intel chip -- Intel is already promoting the technology on its Web site. "Iim an Apple proponent," he explained. "They sell sole-service solutions, and they like to be a few steps ahead of everyone else. Apple could build WiMAX into computers, or have a WiMAX transmitter that plugs in, and there could be a WiMAX plug-in for the TV. It could be a two-piece solution, similar to AirPort Express."

Mr. Yunker acknowledged that "price could be the barrier there initially, but AirPort wasnit that cheap when it debuted in 1997."

Strategy Analytics analyst Phil Kendall agreed that Apple is "looking into the role of WiMAX for home networking -- not exactly a priority area for most WiMAX proponents -- would be in character. It would make sense for Apple to look to stay near the front of the wireless pack." However, he said that his firm "expects 802.11n to play the stronger role in connected homes." That wireless standard is the successor to 802.11a/b/g, and Mr. Kendall sees it "establishing itself for video in the home."

"In the home networking domain," he explained, "a strong role for WiMAX is built entirely on the assumption that it becomes a default technology on laptops. However, we do not expect it to displace WiFi there. Given the continued explosion in the number of WiFi access points, it would take a phenomenal level of WiMAX network investment to make WiFi obsolete on laptops. We are more optimistic about the economics behind WiFiis continued evolution than we are about the economics of WiMAX, which are built on a lot of ifs."

However, Mr. Yunker noted that "there is a lot of upheaval in the wireless market right now. What is the next-gen solution?" Recent news reports state that creation of the 802.11n standard has stalled because neither of the two groups competing to set that standard has won the 75% of the vote required by the rules of the IEEE standards process.

In contrast, the WiMAX standard was approved in June 2004, although Mr. Yunker said that Intel and Apple working together to create products using the technology "could be years in the making. WiMAX isnit ready for prime time yet."

Mr. Kendall summed up his position: "We are not ruling out WiMAX in this domain. We just believe it will not be this decade which sees any significant proliferation of in-home WiMAX deployments. But WiMAX would definitely be a good bet for Apple as it looks to where its wireless strategy goes in the future."