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Wednesday 2 December 2015

My part in the making of WiFi

Between 1994 and 1996 I was working at CSIRO Radiophysics (which turned into Telecommunications and Industrial Physics). Terry Percival was my boss' boss, and Diet Ostry and I shared an office. This story happened just a little bit before Terry, Diet and the two Johns had starting applying the radio signal unsmearing algorithms that CSIRO ended up with patents for which formed part of the WiFi standard.

One day Dr Percival set me (fresh-faced, obnoxious, know-it-all graduate) the challenge of solving the hardest problem in radio communications at the time: how can A and B communicate reliably, if A can't detect C's signal, and C can interfere with B?

My thoughts on the matter was that everyone was mis-stating the problem. It's only going to be a serious problem if you want to broadcast at 2.4 GhZ. If you drop the frequency of the signal down to something so low that even an iron ore mountain is transparent to it, it would be a very strange environment where A & C couldn't communicate.

So therefore, the real problem was that we were trying to do high speed networking. On the contrary, what we should be researching is extremely low-speed networking. How could we have useful and reliable communication at only a few bits per second?

Latency, jitter, high-speed CPUs to perform processing -- all these hard problems go away when you are only dealing in bits per second.

There were three other very good reasons why I thought low-speed networking was the right thing to look at, too: Linux, mining and submarines.

At the time, Linux was just making inroads into our thinking. The business world was dominated by IBM mainframes and (even in 1996) Windows 3.11 crashing was a daily experience for most people's workday.

The prevailing opinion that the team in the signal processing wing of CSIRO Radiophysics developed was that source-available (free-to-modify) software was unstoppable, and in a short time would conquer everything else, particularly Microsoft. After all, if the source was available, the program could never truly become unavailable or die, like proprietary software would. Software distribution bloat was about to go away, because we would all be getting our software in source form and compiling it. The days of elegant software that did exactly what it was supposed to without cruft were just around the corner because of the massive growth in volunteer developers who would tidy up anything and everything.

Which led me to the conclusion that we wouldn't really need high speed networks. The future was going to be everyone having these extremely reliable, high performance desktops (32-bit Linux never crashed; and the difference in this and also in performance was night and day compared to 16-bit Windows 3.11). All the software we would ever want would already be on our local harddisks -- all of it free -- and that there simply wouldn't be enough "stuff" to send over a network to even justify upgrading existing 9.6k modems. (I used to dial in on a 2.4k modem most of the time, myself).

I had been working on a related geophysics project as well. It was deployed on Linux (tying into the future-of-operating-systems theme) and deployed radio transmitters and receivers down boreholes in order to draw conclusions about the kinds of rocks in a region. It seemed like geophysical technologies were going to be a significant part of Australia's research future (at least I got something right!), and the need to deliver communications down into mines (where very low bandwidth would be inevitable) seemed like a worthwhile research direction.

The issues with the Collins class submarines at the time (including: how do we communicate with a submarine deep underwater?) made it seem to me like all the arrows were pointing at low-speed rather than high-speed communication.

I was so convinced that Terry and Diet (and John Deane, who was just down the corridor; and John O'Sullivan whom I think I interacted with a couple of times) were on the wrong track that I ended up quitting CSIRO and joining a private consultancy. This probably diverted me away from academia altogether which is where I otherwise would have gone. With the funding cuts that have hammered Australian research in the last few years, I'm kind of glad about this.

And it was fortunate for everyone else that I quit; I suspect I would have been a pain to work with if I'd stayed, and I'm sure I would have tried (probably unsuccessfully) to push the research in all the wrong directions. I suspect that I might have done such a bad job on the team that they might well have never made any progress to what we now call 802.11b Wi-Fi. On this basis, can I claim that I played a role in the creation of WiFi? By leaving and letting the team hire someone who actually had a clue what they were doing?

I'd like to say that I learn from my mistakes.

Before I got the private consultancy job, I applied for a quant-like role at County Natwest which in the end I turned down (again another lucky save given their history later). I was asked how I thought that County Natwest could make use of the Internet. My answer was that since no-one in their right mind would transfer money over the internet, that all it could be was an information portal.

A decade later (in 2007) I left Google because I was fairly convinced that it was going to fall apart in a few years as Wikipedia became ever more trustworthy that it would become everyone's first point of call for search. It's 2015 now as I search using Google over my home WiFi connection from a proprietary operating system: I have to admit that Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt and Terry Percival were right, and I was wrong.

Based on this, feel free to ignore anything in this blog that you disagree with, since it's almost definitely wrong. But I still think I'm right when I say that my my book of nerd-geek poetry has the best poems about nuclear physics you'll ever see. (And some fun stuff with robots, AI, first contact, and all sorts of other topics. There's even a vampire-at-the-blood-bank.) You really should go and buy it for yourself or your nearest and dearest nerd-geek friends. Here's the Amazon link: When Medusa went on Chatroulette.

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