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WiFi Pioneer Cees Links Sets His Sights on the Smart Home

WiFi Pioneer Cees Links Sets His Sights on the Smart Home
Winner of Design News’ 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award says the IoT will be much bigger than the WiFi revolution.

Cees Links believes the Internet of Things (IoT) is waiting for the next "Steve Jobs moment."

Links, winner of the Design News 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award, knows about Steve Jobs moments. While making a presentation on an old-fashioned overhead projector at Apple Inc.'s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. in 1998, Links learned how quickly Jobs could change the course of history. “He knew what he wanted,” Links told Design News recently.  “As I put foils on the projector, he talked. After two or three foils, he said, ‘Is it clear what I want?’ I said yes, and he stood up and walked out of the room.”

Thus was born the era of WiFi’s worldwide success. Jobs launched Links’ wireless radio technology in the Apple iBook a year later under the name Apple Airport, igniting the spread of WiFi throughout the computing landscape.

The irony of the moment was that, by then, Links had already been working on the radio technology for a decade. Since 1988, he had led teams of engineers in the development of wireless local area networks at NCR, AT&T, Lucent Technologies, and Agere Systems. He had made countless technical presentations at conferences, in which he would pull a laptop computer from a special pocket sewn into the lining of his jacket, and then demonstrate the concept of remotely connecting to a wireless network.

Cees (pronounced “Case”) Links, WiFi pioneer and current general manager of Qorvo's Wireless Connectivity business, is the winner of the Design News 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award.

“We had our first wireless product in 1991, and I had been pushing and evangelizing for almost a decade by the time I met Jobs,” Links told us. “People kept saying WiFi was not needed, it was risky for your health, and it would create reliability problems. We tried to sell it to Apple before Steve Jobs saw it and nobody was interested. We tried to sell it to Dell, and Michael Dell pooh-poohed the idea.”

But in a matter of 10 minutes, Jobs changed all that. Today, WiFi provides internet access to hundreds of millions of computer users. It also serves in video game consoles, smartphones, digital cameras, audio players, computer printers, factory automation systems, and thousands of other products.

Pacific Design and Manufacturing Show, AnaheimCATCH UP WITH CEES LINKS. Cees Links will present, “The Internet of Things is a service application” at Center Stage during Pacific Design & Manufacturing, Feb. 8, 2017, at 10:30 a.m., in Anaheim, Calif. Don’t miss out on a great talk by an industry pioneer! And join your peers at the Golden Mousetrap Awards Feb. 7, 5 p.m., when we honor Links with the 2017 Design News Lifetime Achievement Award!

As big as WiFi is today, however, Links believes the IoT will be bigger -- much bigger. In 2004, he founded GreenPeak Technologies, a fabless semiconductor company that works on sense-and-control networks that can be employed by the IoT.

Links foresees a day in the near future when homes will incorporate hundreds of IoT devices, including motion sensors, door locks, window locks, lighting systems, curtain controls, thermostats, and smart appliances.

“We’re living at the start of the Internet of Things world, in which every device in your house will be connected to the Internet,” he said.

Links believes homes should be equipped with the same levels of wireless connectivity as cars. Today’s vehicles, he points out, have smart wireless capabilities in engines, phones, windows, tires, and door locks. Yet homes are virtually without wireless, sensor-based systems. “Why can’t I just push one button, like I do for my car, and know that all the doors are locked?” he asked. “Cars have had remote door-locking for 20 years, and homes are still without central door locks.”

One key barrier is the lack of a universally accepted standard wireless technology, he said. He believes an open communications standard, such as Zigbee, is the answer. Right now, however, other standards, such as Apple’s HomeKit and Google’s Thread, among others, are competing for the IoT home market. As a result, no single standard has been adopted, he said.

“When we talk about the IoT, it feels like we’re living in the same fog that we were living in in 1997, ’98, and ’99,” he said. “The IoT is way bigger than the WiFi space was, and the gridlock needs to be broken.”

For that reason, Links is hoping for a modern equivalent to his Steve Jobs Moment -- an event that will spur the industry to move forward, simply and forcefully, much as Jobs’ decision did. “By himself, Steve Jobs made the idea become a reality,” Links said. “It was not Apple or Intel or anyone else. It was Steve Jobs, personally.”

When that happens, the home automation market will roar forward, and consumers will make the decision to incorporate the technology, Links said. “I’m absolutely convinced it will happen,” he told us. “The chasm between the sophistication of my car and my home -- that will disappear.”

Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

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