Intel’s current pitches of long laptop battery life and integrated wireless communications largely failed to resonate with an educational audience at a presentation this week.
The problem is cost rather than appeal of the concept in itself, says one educational IT leader.
Silicon Systems, an Intel-based PC builder, presented Intel innovations at its Petone office last week, including some of the company’s pico-technology sensor-network road map. The local company passed around one of its laptops based on Intel’s new low-power wireless-equipped Centrino processor, which put up a creditable performance in internet access.
Wireless power would certainly smooth school IT, says Tom Cummings, in charge of IT at Wellington’s Onslow College, and it’s a pity Centrino-based machines weren’t available early enough to be candidates for the Ministry of Education’s supply of laptops for the use of school principals and staff.
“We’re facing quite a big cabling project at Onslow; one area of the school is on a plateau, and we’ve been looking at how to connect it. Digging trenches and laying cable still comes out more cost-effective than buying a radio transmitter and getting wireless cards to link all the desktops and laptops into the network.”
Wireless is a feasible and appealing technology for schools, maybe as little as a year down the track, Cummings says. Silicon Systems staff attempted to push the line that the IT-skilled staff had better start experimenting with wireless now so they could acquire the skills and get the bugs out before widespread adoption. But Cummings says he's not a fan of the "buy now before the price drops" approach.
He sees security with wireless as uncertain ground too, despite Silicon’s promotion of the Centrino’s inbuilt encryption and authentication technology.
“I wasn’t christened Thomas for nothing,” he says.
IT vendors still haven’t completely grasped the way schools operate, he says. Schools like Onslow are enterprise-scale organisations, “we have more than a thousand users, though they’re not all working with the computers at once,” but they are on limited budgets and have an unusual requirement for mobility.
"We’ll be up one end of the school one minute and then a short time later we’ll have to be at the other end, needing to log on and see the same environment. That’s why I’m such a fan of [Novell’s] ZenWorks, because it lets you do that.”
Novell also presented at the Silicon Systems event, running over the innovations of the OneNet architecture and Netware 6. Last month it took Cummings to the Brainshare conference at its Utah head office in Salt Lake City. Aside from the productive ideas exchanged, the set-up of that conference was a huge example of the utility of digital wireless communications, he says, with delegates able to pull up-to-date conference information down to their own laptops.
"I just wish I'd had a wireless card in mine."
Further out on the Intel roadmap, lip-reading and gesture interpretation with digital sensors, and tiny monitoring devices to keep an eye on elderly relatives’ vital signs have been suggested as two applications of nano-scale technology and “tiny” software on Intel’s roadmap.
Last September Intel technical chief Patrick Gelsinger revealed the hardware maker’s intention to take silicon germanium — the heart of its implementation of software radio — down to the nanoscale.
Intel intends to start at the 90-nanometer level and eventually go down to 65 nm. A “tinyOS” and a “TinyDB” SQL database system are in the works to complement such miniaturised, cheap, low-power appliances.
Intel is working in parallel on visual sensors, which, Silicon spokesman Grant Finer suggested, could be used to enhance voice-telephone communication by interpretation of body language, a more economical alternative to full videoconferencing.
The projected sensor network could offer a family remote confidence that Granny was still well, sitting in her armchair and watching television. “And we'll probably be able to detect what channel she’s watching,” he added.