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Barrett: One chip to rule the radio waves

Proliferation of wireless channels calls for chips that can be tuned to each through software, Intel's CEO says.

And one radio shall rule them all.

Consumer devices need to be connected to an increasing multiplicity of radio channels. To accommodate this, chip manufacturers will have to develop processors that can be reconfigured on the fly through software, Intel CEO Craig Barrett said in a meeting Friday with reporters at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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CEO Craig Barrett and singer Steven Tyler
"You are not going to have nine different radios in this thing," he said.

For the past few years, the development of software-configurable radios has been a goal of Intel, where the effort is termed "Radio Free Intel."

The number of radio capabilities in devices will begin to increase soon, Barrett predicted. Within a year or two, notebooks will be able to connect through WiMax, a wireless data technology with a long signal range. WiMax will add around $100 to $200 to the cost of a laptop, but give notebooks a wireless range in kilometers. UltraWideBand, a short range radio for sending large files like video, will also be integrated into devices, he said.

Despite its embarrassing retreat in the market for television chips, Intel will continue to pursue the overall consumer electronics market, Barrett added. The company will create versions of chips based on the x86 architecture--the basis of PC processors like the Pentium 4--for household electronics. It will also continue to pursue the cell phone market.

Overall, Barrett said, the consumer electronics market will largely revolve around three types of devices: televisions, PCs and handheld computers. Currently, there are about 20 manufacturers that have each come up with an entertainment PC--a computer that looks like a VCR that Intel hopes will become a fixture in the living room for controlling TVs, stereos and the like.

Many of the current industry disputes over standards for consumer electronics, such as the split over Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD, will be resolved, Barrett said.

"It is doubtful you are going to have two wildly different standards," he said, referring to the spat over next-generation optical disc formats.

Regarding the dispute between Hollywood and the technology industry over digital rights management, "They aren't so much butting heads as rubbing knuckles," Barrett said.

Barrett, who plans to step down as Intel's CEO in May and become its chairman, also indicated he takes the concept of retirement seriously. He has no plans to write an executive biography. "I wrote a textbook 30 years ago, and it was a painful experience," he said. Incoming CEO Paul Otellini will be in charge.

"You need to give the current operating guy some room. You can't be in his back pocket," Barrett said.

At the convention, Barrett also gave a speech that was light on news, but heavy on celebrity appearances. Those who shared the stage with the Intel executive included Robert Redford, Aerosmith singer Steve Tyler, a guy on a bike, eBay CEO Meg Whitman, an 8-year-old girl who drew Chinese characters on a PC, Marissa and James DeVito (who created the UMixIt software), an executive from game developer Ubisoft, various Intel employees, a troupe of dancers garbed in Vegas-y ethnic costumes and a guy in a loincloth playing a didgeridoo. Barrett himself came out in a black suit and a black cowboy hat, looking like a Fortune 500 version of Garth Brooks.